Heras-Casado Leads a Haunting New Work from Mason Bates

United StatesUnited States Bartók, Bates, Ravel, Shostakovich: San Francisco Symphony, Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 27.4.2016. (HS)

Bartók: Dance Suite

Mason Bates: Auditorium (world premiere)

Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major

Instrumental color and, to varying degrees, a look back at music of the past defined a diverse and rewarding San Francisco Symphony concert, centered on the world premiere of composer Mason Bates’s Auditorium, a co-commission by the orchestra. Led by the energetic conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, Bates’s work (and all of Wednesday’s concert, actually) offered sonic pleasure, vivid tunes and catchy rhythms more than weighty musical statement.

Since 2009, Bates’s electronica-based pieces have become staples of the orchestra’s programming, including recent works such as Alternative Energy, Liquid Interface, and The B Sides. The composer (who doubles as a DJ when he’s not writing music), stations himself within the orchestra, plays two laptops containing prerecorded sounds, and folds them into the orchestral fabric.

In Auditorium, Bates explores a sort of musical synthesis of past and present. It starts with a sly reference to Edgard Varèse’s Tuning Up, with the oboe giving an “A” at 440Hz and the orchestra going through the usual tuning cacophony, only to be interrupted by the sounds of a Baroque orchestra tuning itself to an “A” at 415 Hz. That’s the pitch most Baroque bands use today, and it sounds almost exactly a half-tone lower.

Having set up a sonic conflict, Bates then plays with it over the work’s 20-minute duration. At first, discord is relished, but soon the modern orchestra settles into one of the composer’s bouncy little modern-day tunes. The Baroque band wafts in and out with asides and commentary in their vernacular, especially piquant when the harpsichord appears.

If that all seems phantasmic, that’s exactly what Bates intended. He sees his Baroque-ish music—written afresh and recorded by the San Francisco Conservatory Baroque Orchestra conducted by Cory Jamason—as the ghosts of previous generations of musicians haunting the concert hall. Digital processing manipulates these sounds into something, well, supernatural. As these sounds and musical worlds come into contact, the contrast makes for an engaging ride.

Two works nicely framed the new one. The opener, Bartók’s 1923 Dance Suite, makes use of the composer’s lifelong fascination with folk music. An exuberant frolic, it sounds exotic only because of its Hungarian roots. If the execution was a tad imprecise, that only underlined the folk inspiration.

After intermission came Le Tombeau de Couperin, Ravel’s homage to the French Baroque keyboard suite. Ravel orchestrated four of the six movements from this piano suite into a charmer that rapidly became a concert-hall staple. He does not try to imitate Baroque music but rather, pays respect to the form with modern means. The orchestra responded to Heras-Casado’s straightforward approach with rhythms fuzzier than would have been ideal, but painted a wonderful range of sonic color. The final toccata ended with a lovely flourish.

The highlight of the evening, however, was a rollicking performance of Shostakovich’s brilliantly offbeat Symphony No. 9. Unlike other composers’ ninth symphonies, this one is a short, lively romp. It has its sardonic moments—it wouldn’t be a Shostakovich symphony without them—but most of the time, the music at least pretends to be happy about the Soviet Union’s victory (at the time of composition) over the invading Nazi army in World War II. Like the rest of the program, the musical language is only mildly pungent, adhering mostly to a neoclassical palette.

Heras-Casado set a perfect pace in the opening movement. Principal piccolo Catherine Payne was in brilliant form. Her work on the trippy theme, which starts off simply but veers off into complex virtuoso territory, was appropriately set up by the raucous trombone call of principal Timothy Higgins. The slow movement, established by a beautifully formed sotto voce clarinet solo by principal Carey Bell, unfurled with straitlaced angst, interrupted by stentorian outbursts from the trombones and tuba. Bassoonist Stephen Paulson spun out an expressive aria, and then took over melodic leadership in the playful finale. It’s impossible to hear this music played so well without grinning.

Harvey Steiman

The Bates piece was streamed on Facebook Live, which, it was announced, makes it the first major orchestra to live-stream a world premiere. It is available on-demand on the San Francisco Symphony Facebook page at www.facebook.com/sfsymphony.


Leave a Comment