New (and New-Old) Music From Major Bay Area Ensembles

Jason Victor Serinus on April 5, 2016

Mason Bates: Works for Orchestra • San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas [SFS Media hybrid SACD]

One of the most-performed of living classical composers, Mason Bates, 39, would seem to have it all. Both the Kennedy Center and Chicago Symphony Orchestra have honored him with residencies, and Santa Fe Opera will premiere his opera on Steve Jobs in the summer of 2017. Closer to home, Michael Tilson Thomas has consistently championed his work – yet another San Francisco Symphony Bates premiere comes later this month – and has even gone so far as to hold a Beethoven & Bates Festival during last season at the Symphony.

Bates’ pedigree as a DJ who joins orchestras and ensembles onstage to perform the electronica elements of his compositions via laptop holds instant appeal for organizations hoping that an imprimatur of hipness will help them attract new audiences. How many other contemporary composers are equipped to stage genre-blending “hybrid” events, let alone launch a music series in the nation’s capitol, titled KC Jukebox, that will feature (in the words of Bates’ official bio) “the immersive production and eclectic programming” for which Bates’ curating projects have become known?

Bates’ relationship with the orchestra has now culminated in San Francisco Symphony’s new, superbly recorded, hi-resolution, optional surround, hybrid SACD issue of three of Bates’ largest works for orchestra.

The four-movement Liquid Interface opens with “Glaciers Calving,” a movement meant to depict fracturing Antarctic glaciers and the consequences of global warming. But what we hear is an anything-but-frightening cross between high-spirited jazz and dance music. The second movement, “Scherzo Liquido,” may be intended as a study of melted ice in its liquid state, but it, too, sounds like dance music. The subsequent “Crescent City,” which is built around a laptop-generated “storm,” might just as well be titled “Hurricane Katrina Goes Big Band.” And the final “On the Wannsee” movement, which is claimed to bring relief and serenity in the form of a balmy, greenhouse paradise of a lake in spring, comes across as a syncopated, hillbilly, country hoedown with a touch of Asia and a more than passing resemblance to the music of Mark O’Connor and Edgar Meyer.

Is Bates some hip variant of Nero fiddling away as Rome burned, telling us we might as well dance away our global catastrophe concerns? If not, then what is all this initially fun but ultimately vacuous music supposed to convey?

Alternative Energy, conceived as an “energy symphony,” purports to depict the negative consequences of technology’s inexorable march to hell. The music begins in Henry Ford’s junkyard. Then it skips forward a century to the FermiLab particle collider, and then to a “dark nuclear power plant in the near future” (2122) before depositing us in a “post-energy dystopia” in far-off Reykjavik, Iceland 100 years after that.

Heavy stuff, eh? But what real substance does the symphony offer, besides some really cool, entertaining sounds of actual particles accelerating back and forth across the recording’s impressively wide soundstage? For that dark nuclear power plant, we get some eerie explosions followed by a grinding dance beat that the liner note annotators call “bracing industrial techno.” Two movements later, Bates’ final vision leads us, not into hell, but rather into a percussive heaven of sorts. Alternative Energy has to be one of the most non-threatening, harmonically benign presentations of doom ever composed.

Bates’ music may be a lot of fun, at least in short doses. The San Francisco Symphony plays it brilliantly, giving it the best possible advocacy. And the recording certainly offers a great way to show off a sound system. But people have been writing electronic and orchestral music of far greater depth and import for well over a half-century. When all is said and done, Bates’ anodyne patina of hipness is a poor substitute for revolutionary and thought-provoking art. 

Alessandro Scarlatti: La Gloria di Primavera • Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale, Nicholas McGegan (2-CDs PBP-9 – release date April 8)

Philharmonia Baroque’s recording of the North American premiere of Alessandro Scarlatti’s long forgotten serenata, La Gloria di Primavera, is simply superb. As one celebratory and upbeat recitative, aria, and ensemble follows another, only a hip-hop fundamentalist could possibly resist the fecundity of Scarlatti’s imagination and the beauty of his melodic flights.

Music Director Nicholas McGegan assembled a world-class band of instrumentalists and vocalists for the October 4, 2015 North American premiere, which was recorded in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church. (The same musicians will reprise the work in New York’s Carnegie Hall and in Costa Mesa in May, and at Tanglewood in August.) Captured for posterity in hi-resolution, with only a bit of a hot edge to the voices, the five vocalists plus stripped-down Chorus, under Philharmonia Chorale Director Bruce Lamott, form one of the finest vocal ensembles I’ve been privileged to hear at a PBO performance.

The raison d’être for this wonderful music can be found here and here. This serenata, which is basically a costumed opera composed for a special occasion, was written in haste to celebrate the birth of the expected heir to the Holy Roman Empire. Alas, shortly after the all-smiles serenata was enthusiastically received, the baby expired. Given that additional performances would have been in very bad taste, let alone occasions for royal wrath, La Gloria di Primavera disappeared from view for three centuries until Scarlatti scholar Benedikt Poensgen, the former manager of McGegan’s Handel Festival in Germany, came across one of several extant manuscripts and created the modern performing edition we hear on this recording.

All you need know about the “plot” is that after the four Seasons take turns celebrating the prince’s noble birth, they call on Jove to decide which amongst them deserves the highest honor. In 1716, it went to Primavera/Spring (the celebrated castrato Matteo Sassano) rather than to Estate/Summer (the equally celebrated soprano and Handel favorite, Margherita Durastanti).

Three centuries hence, McGegan switches voice types around, assigning the castrato role Primavera to mezzo-soprano Diana Moore, and the alto role of Autunno (Autumn) to countertenor Clint Van der Linde. Asked why, he explained by email, “The Primavera role, which was originally sung by the castrato Sassano, is a little bit too high for a countertenor. The role of Autumn is pretty low and fitted Clint's voice perfectly, so I decided to use him rather than a female contralto. It also meant that I could get the maximum variety of voices: soprano, mezzo, countertenor, tenor, and bass.”

McGegan also achieved maximum quality. English mezzo Moore’s voice is warm, plush, full, and eminently smooth, with an air of nobility and grace that never gets in the way of her fleet coloratura. Given the regal nature of the occasion, which calls for a certain amount of royal restraint rather than Bartoli-like abandon, she is perfect.

South African-born Van der Linde is a countertenor of surprising weight and substance. He brings even more color and ferocity to his rapid declamations than the great David Daniels, which is saying a lot, and his rapid runs are wondrous.

In contrast to the other soloists, Slovenian soprano Suzana Ograjensek possesses a light, sweet, soubrette-like voice of great charm. Her fetching innocence and purity seem ideal in this context.

Tenor Nicholas Phan (Inverno/Winter) sings marvelously, with great strength and heroic timbre. The man has Messiah written all over him. Ditto for bass-baritone Douglas Williams (Giove/Jove), whose handsome voice and countenance could shake a heavenly kingdom or two. His performance of the aria, “Dell’alba e dell’aurora” (When the sun first appears), is sensational. But every singer has a standout aria or two, and their ensembles with chorus are delicious. 

Copious praise is due the orchestra, and to McGegan for fleshing out the score’s abundant felicities. Listen to Moore’s Act Two aria, “Canta dolce il rossignuolo” (The nightingale sings sweetly), and marvel at the supremely lovely manner in which the orchestra lilts and sways under and around the voice. The chirping of the winds and the interplay of timbres is masterful. Turn off the lights, put on this recording, and revel in bliss.

G. F. Handel: Messiah • American Bach Soloists / American Bach Choir, Jeffrey Thomas cond. (American Bach Soloists DVD / Blu-ray)

The blu-ray version of ABS’s 2014, period instrument performance of the 1753 Foundling Hospital version of Handel’s great classic seems tailor-made for Christian believers. Not only is virtually every chorus, recitative, and aria accompanied by close-ups of stained glass windows, nativity scenes, and sculptures that pertain to Messiah’s subject matter, but the video also includes an “extra” welcome to San Francisco Grace Cathedral Church.

While the production’s crystal clear, CD-quality sound and optional 5.1 surround – ABS recommends the blu-ray over the lower quality DVD version – conveys the expansive acoustic of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral quite well, the video includes far too many extended pans of stained glass windows, crosses, candles, and the like. While it’s certainly true that, at live performance, music lovers’ eyes can wander far from the stage / altar, I’m not sure many of us, save for the bored, would spend so much of our time staring at the same candles, windows, chapels, and sculptures over and over again.

The video would be far more bearable if it were not so painfully obvious that, when we do see the artists, Music Director Jeffrey Thomas is giving them continual “smile, you’re on camera” cues. These seem to be interspersed with occasional “now look forlorn” direction. The self-consciousness of some of the most frequently videoed choristers is hard to take. Thank goodness the superb instrumentalists, including the excellent trumpeter, John Thiessen, are spared the need to mug.

Perhaps it’s best to close one’s eyes and focus on the musicianship. The excellent and spirited chorus sings beautifully and with feeling. As for the solos, Thomas seems to prefer lightweight singers to the more weighty ones we frequently encounter in this music. Thus we get the sweet but less than authoritative tenor of Kyle Stegall, the gorgeous countertenor of Eric Jurenas, the fine but hardly earth shaking baritone of Jesse Blumberg, and the lovely and agile, if sometimes slim soprano of Mary Wilson. Everyone’s technique is fully up to the work’s demands, and their frequent and gratifying embellishments are always tastefully applied. But when every valley is exalted, or the sea and dry land shake, a little more weight and authority would not be amiss.

Nonetheless, this Foundling Hospital version of Messiah is quite valuable for the many, easily discernible differences between it and Handel’s many other, more frequently encountered versions. Those wishing to learn more about the history of Messiah performance in Handel’s time will greatly appreciate Thomas’ fascinating erudite lecture, which is included as a video “extra.” What they won’t appreciate is that neither it nor a track list appears in print in the package. To read them, as well as the production credits, you must head online.