MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

World Premiere in Seattle: Mason Bates’s Cello Concerto

If you think symphony orchestras are merely about curating and presenting music by dead composers, you’ve been missing out on some remarkable experiences from the likes of the Seattle Symphony. The orchestra got a whopping six nominations for the 2015 Grammy Awards(R) announced last week — three of them for the apocalyptic Become Ocean by John Luther Adams, composer who fuses innovative sound painting with philosophical and environmental meditations.

And this week’s concerts bring the world premiere of a cello concerto Mason Bates has written for Joshua Roman, former principal cellist of the SSO who has since pursued a career as a freelance artist and new-music advocate. The program will also include Prokofiev’s Suite from Lieutenant Kijé and excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty. On the podium will be the young Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. She has been making news this season as assistant conductor under Gustavo Dudamel at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

In October the Baltimore Symphony announced the results of a study investigating programming trends this season among 22 major American orchestras. They found that Bates is the second most frequently performed living composer (after John Adams — the other Adams, no relation to John Luther Adams).

“With a new concerto, you always get a lot of tune-ups on the first drive out,” says Bates, speaking by phone from his home in Oakland, California. Bringing a piece of music to life, he adds, is “one of the most exciting things. People in Seattle will get to hear the energy and excitement of that process.” The Cello Concerto is one of three major premieres on the calendar this season for the hugely-in-demand Bates. The others include the first recording of his acclaimed new Violin Concerto for Anne Akiko Meyers and a “surreal symphonic suite” called Anthology of Fantastic Zoology.

The 37-year-old composer enjoys a close relationship with the San Francisco Symphony, where Michael Tilson Thomas has long been one of his major advocates. Last season they presented a two-week festival titled “Beethoven & Bates.” Bates also has won over the likes of conductor Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony. For several seasons he and peer Anna Clyne have been shaking things up in the Windy City as dual composers-in-residence. (Clyne’s piece Prince of Clouds, which was released on a recording with music by Bates, is a contender in the 2015 Grammys for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.)

Bates is also famous for his alter ego as a DJ (he goes by the moniker “Masonic”). In San Francisco and many other cities Bates presents a counterpart to his orchestral performances in the form of after-hours sessions of immersive electronica. Sometimes these take place in areas of a city’s concert hall — a bit like the [untitled] series Seattle Symphony has instituted in the Benaroya Hall lounge since Ludovic Morlot’s tenure began.

Bates’s website includes separate tabs for “classical” and “electronica,” but much of his orchestral work magically fuses the two. Mothership is a good example: it was commissioned for the pioneering YouTube Symphony by Tilson Thomas, which premiered it in 2011.

And the YouTube Symphony project sprouted another significant musical friendship. “[Joshua Roman] and I got thrown together in a kind of shotgun wedding with the YouTube Symphony. We were both on the program in New York and were scheduled to play later that evening at Poisson Rouge. We had never played together before, but that night we did an electro-acoustic improvisation. The second stop in our musical relationship was a piece for his series at Town Hall in Seattle.” This later become Carbide & Carbon (named for the building in Chicago), “an unbelievably difficult piece for solo cello which he played from memory a month after receiving the score.”

Bates and the 31-year-old Roman first met in Seattle at the Seattle Chamber Players Icebreaker Festival of new music in 2008, so the Cello Concerto represents a kind of homecoming. “Throughout the planning and writing of the piece, “ says Roman, “Mason and I have been in close contact. He’s done a remarkable job of making me feel like the concerto was written for my playing style and fingers. Add to that my previous performances and two-year tenure with the Seattle Symphony, and this week is full of powerful connections and emotions for me. I’m overjoyed to be premiering this exciting piece with an orchestra that feels like family.”

“This piece is about Josh,” Bates explains. “It’s about the personality he brings to the cello as an instrument. “He can play any note and make it sound so good. That comes from the tone he has, which is a combination of absolute precision and at the same time an incredibly musical sensibility. Josh makes you forget about the technique, even about the instrument. He just transports you into the musical world of the composer. It’s like that line from Yeats, “how can we know the dancer from the dance.” He makes it all sound so natural.” Overall, the Cello Concerto is “more introverted in a way, a piece that comes from the inside of the cello.”

Although the Cello Concerto is more “traditional” in the sense that Bates doesn’t use any of his palette of electronica in the score, traces of that sensibility come through in the exotic sounds of the kalimba (African thumb piano), which “have a delicate ringing texture. I thought this would lay out an interesting rhythmic bed for the opening theme. And this piece reflects the influence of electronica on my thinking, for example in some of the rhythmic activity in the final movement.”

What does Roman most look froward to with this premiere? “The process of learning a piece without having preconceived notions from repeated hearings of other cellists, the benefit of being able to communicate directly with the composer about their intentions, and the responsibility of presenting it for audiences to have a fresh experience and future performers to continue the life of the piece are all strong factors. Cellists, in particular, were often overlooked in past centuries, so even though we have great concertos from a few of the masters we are constantly seeking to build the repertoire.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, commissions, new music, Seattle Symphony

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. […] working with Mason on the concerto. Read previews of the performance from The Seattle Times, Memeteria and Classical KING FM’s Second Inversion, and reviews from Classical Voice America and The […]


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