Auditorium at the Kennedy Center

The symphonic season kicks off in the Fall with orchestras showcasing some of their most exciting work, and it’s a great time to see what’s happening in the field. As I look ahead to the National Symphony Orchestra’s performances of Auditorium this month, followed by a DJ gig at San Francisco’s famed LoveBoat, I’m also reflecting on memorable things I’ve seen and heard over the past few weeks.

Maestro Brett Mitchell opened the Colorado Symphony’s subscription series with characteristic panache, pairing Beethoven with my The B-Sides and a fanfare by Kevin Puts. Launching his music directorship with a mix of new and old shows demonstrates the vivid programming of this dynamo. Mitchell rose to prominence at the Cleveland Orchestra, where he jumped in for last-minute appearances to much acclaim, and he always has his ear to the ground, listening for compelling American voices. But I’d never seen him conduct until last month.

Mitchell knows how to iron-out the myriad subtleties of an intricate piece like The B-Sides while staying focused on the larger arc. In the two acoustic movements “Aerosol Melody Hanalei” and “Temescal Noir,” for example, he stayed focused on the long-lined melodies while bringing out lots of nuances in the constantly-shifting metrical bed. In the electro-acoustic “Broom of the System,” I’ve come to expect that orchestras will need a few run-throughs before acclimating to the mercurial rhythms of the “future clock.” But Colorado played it near perfectly on its first run-through. It’s a fine orchestra with a mature and confident young maestro at its helm, and the crowd and vibe in the hall is hip.

On the East Coast, I dropped into the Kennedy Center to hear the National Symphony open with an all-Bernstein program. In my third year as composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, I find it’s so useful to experience the place in all manner of shows and repertoire. We’ll all be hearing a lot of Bernstein during his centennial year, and I just hope we get the full range of the composer, as we did at the NSO Ball.

The central work was a version of Bernstein’s Mass for cello and orchestra, a challenging piece that becomes more distant as it unfolds. The decked-out audience seemed a little deflated at hearing Yo-Yo Ma play something other than a showpiece, but the inclusion of this work gave gravitas to a concert that featured primarily lighter fare. Hearing the Mass also put Candide Overture and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story in greater relief. In the context of hearing the Mass, I listened to a collection of Bernstein’s Broadway songs with new ears.

Like the Colorado Symphony, the NSO sets sail with a new music director this year. Gianandrea Noseda is in his honeymoon phase right now, and you can sure hear it in the way the musicians play. The Symphonic Dances were especially vivid: the brass and percussion really know how to swing (they certainly play a lot in that rep under principal pops conductor Stephen Reineke). Kudos to Noseda for taking on a program that lies a bit outside his comfort zone, and I look forward to hearing him conduct a big range of repertoire this year at the NSO.

Another quick visit “in the field” brought me to the 20th anniversary concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchetra’s MusicNOW series, which I ran for five years with composer Anna Clyne. It’s the good hands of Elizabeth Ogonek and Samuel Adams now, and they were gracious to bring back many of the former composers-in-residence for this show. The players did a fine job on my study in miniatures The Life of Birds, a short work for mixed ensemble conjuring different aspects of the aviary. Over our five years at the CSO, Anna and I were so grateful to see the audience grow and respond so favorably to our experiments in concert format. I’ve taken many of the things I’ve learned in immersive stagecraft to my KC Jukebox series at the Kennedy Center, but it’s nice to see the MusicNOW series still going strong.

Looking ahead, I have an eclectic few weeks in front of me. I’ll be returning to the Kennedy Center to perform my baroque thriller Auditorium with the NSO, then heading home to spin techno at the SF Loveboat right after a performance by Moby. All the while, I’ll be tinkering away on my fanfare oratorio Children of Adam.

Auditorium takes the premise that an orchestra, like a person, can be haunted. Ghostly remixed recordings of baroque period instruments trail the live orchestra, with riffs being passed across the void like on a giant Oiji board.   What begins as a haunting unfolds into a kind of ‘techno bourée,’ with the two musical entities reaching an ethereal resolution. The piece was written for the San Francisco Symphony and premiered by Pablo Heras-Casado.

After Michael Tilson Thomas directed me to some obscure 18th Century composers (classic MTT maneuver), I conceived of a work that would approach not only the style and musical mannerisms of that period, but the actual instruments themselves. I composed neo-baroque music for the wonderfully strange instruments of that era, then remixed that material in ways that could never be played live. Chords swoosh on, melodies flicker like poltergeists. It will be exciting to perform this hot-off-the-press work with the NSO.

And what’s up with the Loveboat? This is a hugely popular San Francisco mini-festival that runs Halloween weekend. Run by Robbie Kowal, aka Motion Potion,the event features a great mix of artists from across the electronic universe. I perform on Saturday October 28 on a shows that includes The Polish Ambassadors and Moby.

Whether it be on shows like the Loveboat or my own Mercury Soul events, I enjoy the chance to DJ through big systems for reactive crowds. It’s great to be informed by a variety of genre just through iPod listening, but being active as a performed in a different space is good for both mind and body. It keeps my DJ chops sharp while also giving me a fresh perspective on how we experience music from all cultures.

Bernstein, in his own way, is a model for this kind of omnivorous stylistic appetite.  At 100, his diversity of music still seems fresh.  I’m looking forward to hearing him throughout the Kennedy Center and beyond this year, with an eye to both his music and the music yet to be written.