Bathing in Bates and Bartók—with Mozart in Between

United StatesUnited States Mason Bates, Mozart, Bartók: David Fray (piano), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden, conductor. Symphony Center, Chicago, 31.5.2013 (JLZ).

Mason Bates: Liquid Interface
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

In the latest concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s series called Rivers: Nature, Power, Culture, Mason Bates’ Liquid Interface (2007) made a colorful, moving opener. Using various musical genres, Bates creates watery blocks of sound that resemble glaciers moving (in “Glaciers Calving”) to water drops that provide the rhythmic motif beyond “Scherzo Liquido.” In “Crescent City,” Bates moves from nature to modern culture to pay homage to New Orleans, with big-band style swing. The final “On the Wannsee” offers a satisfying set of variations. The composer himself handled the electronics, which were well-integrated with the orchestra. Like Alternative Energies, which the CSO performed last season, Liquid Interface is an engaging new work that deserves to be heard more often.

The first half closed with the CSO debut of David Fray in a fine performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, starting with a technically clean and precise reading of the first movement. His expressiveness emerged more clearly in the second, with conductor Jaap van Zweden offering a richly textured accompaniment. Here the phrasing was key, and van Zweden, who has collaborated with Fray on recordings of Mozart’s piano concertos, gave the piece shape and direction, ending with richly textured orchestral colors in the Rondo. Van Zweden’s leadership was discreet, and demonstrated his deft hand with the style.

Van Zweden’s commanding interpretation of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra added to the CSO’s longstanding tradition with this piece, dating to the time when Fritz Reiner was the conductor, and van Zweden brought out details that are sometimes obscured. His sensitivity to tempo and tempo relationships contributed a sense of freshness, which never felt studied or unnatural, but always well-thought. The first movement moved seamlessly from the subtle introduction to the main theme, with the strings following the conductor intensely, precisely. The woodwinds were similarly impressive in the second movement, bringing vivid life to the Bartók’s distinctive tone colors. Yet the central Elegy stood out, with the subtleties of tempo having added to the overall effect. Van Zweden’s deft hand in the Scherzo made it fresh and exciting, with the low brass giving the famous “interruption” its proper context. With the Finale, the virtuoso playing was matched with subtleties in dynamics, phrasing, articulation and tempo—all coming together in a powerful conclusion.

James L. Zychowicz