This is the time of year when I rarely go anywhere, when getting ‘dressed up’ is synonymous with ‘getting dressed,’ and when prime-time composing begins. But before I slipped into flip-flops and a new piece for Ricccardo Muti, I had to make two quick trips to orchestras I love.
First was a visit to the Toronto Symphony, which was giving the Canadian premiere of a work they co-commissioned entitled Garages of the Valley. I’ve been fortunate to have a long relationship with the TSO, one of the most vibrant of orchestras. My introduction to them came via John Adams, who beautifully conducted my ‘water symphony’ Liquid Interface, and I returned last season to perform Alternative Energy with the amazing Maestra Carolyn Kuan. But this recent visit was my first TSO premiere, and my first time working with music director Peter Oundjian.
This is a man who rehearses so thoroughly, who understands one’s music so intuitively, that a composer has gratefully little to say. Garages of the Valley conjures the workshops of the early tech visionaries, who invariably dreamed up the Computer Age in decidedly low-tech garages all over Silicon Valley. Eschewing the electronics so prevalent in my music, I wanted to create a piece that evoked a whirlwind digital activity by purely acoustic means.
Peter not only navigated the labyrinth of metric modulations that underpin the work, but he did a superb job of coaxing the micro-tonal, quasi-electronic sonorities that evoke circuit boards. I’ve always found it challenging to get my head around an “opener” — the short, often fast works that open symphonic concerts. The allure of The Deep Experience often pushes my pieces beyond the 9’ length that is required of a standard opener. Mothership was the first time I cracked the form, but it was time for me to offer an acoustic opener – and I think with a few minor cuts, Garages of the Valley is that piece.
The other work on the program, Shostakovich 5, was brought to life as superbly as I’d ever heard it. Peter managed to keep it powerful and poignant without getting bogged down, not an easy task for such a deeply conflicted symphony. (While it was written with the aim of getting Stalin’s approval, it is riddled with revolutionary subtext.) The touching performance struck me as particularly impressive given that this was one of the TSO’s Late Night concerts. A hugely diverse crowd of all ages showed up for food trucks and booze, yet when the concert started, these new-comers were enraptured by the performance.
After the premiere, I scurried back to San Francisco for a one-day familial appearance (can’t miss Father’s Day), then headed to Chicago to catch Maestro Muti conduct Schubert, Mozart, and Mahler. In the midst of a large new work for himand the Chicago Symphony, I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to watch them in action.
One may think of Muti, a Southern Italian, as a musician who conducts from the heart. But his southern charms are always complemented by laser-sharp rigor. He opened his rehearsal of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 by discussing his research into the bass solo in the third movement. With a pile of papers on the podium — and a facsimile of Mahler’s manuscript — the maestro presented his reasons for asking only the principle to play the solo. After laying out the evidence, he added the charm: this movement is “like a Jewish wedding,” he said, and at that time, Jewish folk were “too poor for a lot of contrabasses.” A punch line, yes, but in fact the solitary bass does indeed project a deeper, perhaps more authentically Jewish, sense of loneliness in that passage.
The concert that night featured two symphonies by Schubert, a composer not overly appreciated in that form. Often one looks to the songs and chamber music to spot the gems of harmonic originality for which he is best known. Muti, however, has made it something of a signature to explore underappreciated works in the repertoire. Whether it be Frank’s D minor or Schubert’s first, the maestro always makes a compelling case. For me, the highlight of the concert was the scherzo of Schubert’s sixth, apparently the first time the composer used that form orchestrally. (I became something of a connoisseur of Schubert scherzi when writing Mothership, which is based a the “scherzo with double trio” that he invented.)
Then I hopped on a flight back home. A wide variety of flip-flops await, as does the Anthology of Fantastic Zoology — a new work for Muti and the CSO that will be a kind of psychedelic Carnival of the Animals. Time to write.
“[Anthology of Fantastic Zoology] recalls the conclusion of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, but on a meth high.” – John von Rhein
San Jose Mercury News
“If Mason Bates’ Rusty Air in Carolina is any indication, this 30-year-old composer (who is based in the East Bay and has a parallel career as a DJ) also has a voice…A Virginia native who summered as a teenager in South Carolina, his new work recalls sticky Southern nights, filled with the chatter and buzz of katydids and cicadas. …You could feel the humidity, while luxuriating in Bates’ exquisite, almost Impressionistic, atmospherics.” -Richard Scheinin
The New York Times
“Contemporary composers can integrate high-definition recordings of sounds they want to evoke, as Mason Bates does in his cleverly constructed Liquid Interface. The first movement, “Glaciers Calving,” begins with an ominous recording of glaciers crashing into the Antarctic Ocean, soon followed by dense, haunting swirls from the strings and electronic beats that accelerate to lively drum and bass rhythms. Mr. Bates’s colorful four-movement tone poem, which uses a vast orchestra and electronics to evoke water in both soothing and menacing forms, received its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall -Vivian Schweitzer
The New Yorker
“Mason Bates’s Digital Loom, for organ and electronics…transformed the hall into something between a decaying cathedral and an East Berlin club.” -Alex Ross
New York Magazine
“Take Mason Bates’s Digital Loom for organ and electronics, a centennial commission. Definitely a voice from the younger generation, Bates reimagines the king of instruments as a surreal creature inventing its own space, the illuminated stops flashing like an enormous pinball machine and presided over by the organist as D.J. who programs wild sequences of hip-hop, funk, and ambient electronica” -Peter Davis
The Washington Post
“Mason Bates, 30 years old…knows how to command an orchestra just as well as he does his touchpad. Bates’s Liquid Interface, a National Symphony commission that received its world premiere last night, surpassed in sheer sonic beauty even the works by Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky that rounded out the program.”
The Los Angeles Times
“Be it mixing trip-hop and funk at a club or writing a symphonic or chamber work, composer Mason Bates is getting noticed for his straddling of classical music and electronica. … Young, Juilliard-trained and already celebrated, he’s become a fixture not only in concert halls but in the world of electronica as well. … At a time when symphony orchestras nationwide are trolling for audience magnets – the type of new material that can lure members of generations X and Y along with older subscribers – Bates just might have that bait. ”
Concerto for Two Universes, Donna Perlmutter