Polaris, a tone poem written in 2010 by the British composer Thomas Adès (b. 1971) evokes the vastness and majesty of the sea and the sky. A shifting kaleidoscope of color, it is music in which elemental forces are in play. Subtitled, “Voyage for Orchestra,” Polaris can give you the cinematic sensation of drifting over a gradually shifting landscape.
The title is a reference to Polaris, the North Star, long a navigational tool for seafarers, and a seemingly magnetic celestial beacon around which other stars appear to revolve. Harmonically, the piece uses what Adès describes as a “magnetic series” involving all twelve notes. As the pitches are introduced, a particular pitch rises to prominence and seems to attract the surrounding pitches. With the appearance of the twelfth pitch, the poles shift and the process begins again. The third and final section arrives at a searing and open-ended conclusion. Antiphonal brass introduce drifting, canonic lines. Distant, plaintive trumpet calls grow into heroic fanfares.
Polaris was premiered by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Orchestra at the inaugural concert of Miami’s New World Center, designed by the architect, Frank Gehry. Adès’ fluid soundscape may have been influenced by Miami’s oceanfront, as well as an opera based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which the composer completed in 2004. An optional film, created by Tal Rosner and inspired by Rockwell Kent’s illustrations for a 1930 edition of Moby-Dick, accompanies the music in some performances.
- Adès: Polaris, Voyage for Orchestra, Thomas Adès, London Symphony Orchestra Amazon
Featured Image: “Polaris time lapse at Deep River, Ontario, Canada,” photograph by David Cox