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Superb Renditions of Beethoven, Bates

January 15, 2014

San Francisco Symphony

Mason Bates performing on WednesdayThe ovation when MTT recognized Ragnar Bohlin’s SF Symphony Chorus after Beethoven’s Mass in C was huge. So huge, that when MTT stuck his head between two of the four vocal soloists and wiggled his arms, it seemed that he was saying “And don’t’ forget me too, and my orchestra!” Well, they were all wonderful, chorus, orchestra — and conductor. Wonderful — even if the relatively unadventurous music itself was a poor match with misguided promotional material.

The Chorus in the Wednesday evening performance I attended impressed with its articulation, crispness, and attention to accent, sharply supervised and judiciously paced by MTT. Soprano Joélle Harvey was a little dry at the beginning of the Kyrie, but soon gained her stride in suitably reverent and pitch-perfect attention to her part. Mezzo Kelley O’Connor was impressive with her rich sound and lovely facial and aural expressivity. Tenor William Burden delivered soaring clarity in fine fashion, with nice support from bass-baritone Shenyang.

The orchestra too was in top form, opening with Beethoven’s Overture to King Stephen, where the trumpets and horns excelled. The “Scherzo Liquido” section of Mason Bates’ Liquid Interface was the technical highlight of the evening. There, the complex interplay of motives passed among sections came across as sparkling and exciting, when the difficult music easily could have resulted in a train wreck when attempted by lesser ensembles.

Two Bs, or not two Bs?

The concert began a second week of music under the Symphony’s Project San Francisco, which sponsors residencies for outstanding composers and performers. Probably unduly influenced by Hans Von Bülow’s famous reformulation of the ”3 B’s,” Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, an uncredited article in the symphony program on “Beethoven and Bates” compares them as “two composer who, though separated by 200 years, are united by their blazing originality.”

Unfortunately, the two works of Beethoven played so well at the Wednesday concert lie far on the less original side of the composer’s output. The C Major Mass is quite Haydenesque, and quite pleasant most of its length in a Pastorale sort of way. But there is no comparison, in terms of originality, with the Missa Solemnis. Likewise for the rather patched-together King Stephen, which pales against the Egmont.

And how “original” is Bates? He describes himself in relation to Beethoven in a video on the SF Symphony website:

You could have Brahms, who thought of Beethoven as a great formal master, but then there’s … Berlioz, who thought of Beethoven as the beginning of the Narrative Symphonist. … My works take a kind of programmatic approach of the 19th-century symphonists—Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner—in the sense of they’re telling big stories …

It seems that Berlioz (one of the original “3 B’s,” by the way) might be a better publicity pairing for Bates, considering his narrative goals and competent, but hardly revolutionary structures in Liquid Interface. The piece is a series of four tone poems about water: first frozen in glaciers, then melted in droplets, streams and rivers, then presumably as rain in Hurricane Katrina at New Orleans (the “Crescent City” movement), then quiet in a lake near Berlin, where the music was written. In several interviews with audience members during intermission, many attested to the cinematic nature of the music. Most were very pleased with Bates’ effort. “At least it wasn’t atonal,” said one.

The highlight of Bates’ piece for me, as mentioned earlier, was the intricate orchestration in the second movement. The “hurricane” was more of a flash-by dust devil, not a tragedy. New Orleans was suggested by some clever syncopation and jazz-band idioms. As referred to in Thomas May’s program notes, there was “subdued” melodic material, but none of the folks I interviewed heard any melodies. Too many melodies, such as they are, end up in “subduction zones” nowadays.

The truth of Bates’ originality lies in his productive work at integrating electronica into the orchestral fabric. Popping noises evoked raindrops. Field samples from glaciers calving and from Lake Waansee were included. Steady drumbeats inspired by EDM (Electronic Dance Music, e.g., Disco) livened up the proceedings.

The result is interesting, pleasant, but not profound. Or very original music, however original the “instrument,” such as Bates’ electronica section that he is trying to pioneer.

Perhaps Bates will end up more of a “G” than a “B” composer. After all, it was the Belgian composer Paul Gilson (1865-1942) who wrote the very first saxophone concerto in 1902. Today, does that composer’s music Blaze or Glaze? I don’t know, I’ve never heard it.

Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area.