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‘Declassified’: Mason Bates Month continues at the KenCen

Written By | Apr 23, 2016

Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Mason Bates in action with the NSO. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

WASHINGTON, April 19, 2016 – April has clearly been Mason Bates Month at the Kennedy Center. Not only was the KenCen’s composer-in-residence on the National Symphony Orchestra’s menu in a weekend menu of concerts highlighting his violin concerto and other 20th century American works, all expertly conducted by Hugh Wolff.

Festivities continued Monday evening with the latest edition of Mr. Bates’ series of musical happenings, aka, “KC Jukebox,” which we’ll visit in a separate review

Our previous review of last week’s regular NSO series concerts (presented Thursday and Saturday evenings) explored the orchestra’s approach to recent and relatively recent music by American composers—particularly Mr. Bates’ Violin Concerto, written for and brilliantly performed by one of the world’s finest violinists of today, Anne Akiko Meyers.

Last Friday’s concert, however, was part of the NSO’s special “Declassified” series of concerts, distinguished by their party-like atmosphere including before- and after-parties in the KenCen foyer as well as a focus on the kind of new music and electronica one rarely hears at a classical music concert. As such, Friday’s program was exclusively devoted to the music of Mason Bates.

Mason Bates “Declassified”

While including his Violin Concerto, again performed by Ms. Meyers—who, appropriate for “Declassified” atmospherics, traded in her luscious, red “classical music” gown worn the previous evening for more millennially-tuned, fashion-forward attire—Friday’s concert menu also included performances of Mr. Bates’ overture-like “The Rise of Exotic Computing” as well as his complete “The B-Sides.”


Read also: National Symphony Orchestra’s Mason Bates explosion


That latter, decidedly more electronic-oriented work is also a focal point of the composer’s recently released CD entitled “Mason Bates: Works for Orchestra.” The acoustic music on this disk is supplied by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its Music Director for Life, Michael Tilson Thomas.

If anything, Ms. Meyers eclipsed her impressive Thursday evening performance of Mr. Bates’ concerto in her Friday edition. However, her considerable efforts seemed to go over the heads of Friday’s younger-skewing audience when compared to the enthusiastic response of Thursday’s more experienced crowd of NSO patrons. (Check out our previous review of that concert for details.)

Anne Akiko Meyers performing Mason Bates' Violin Concerto at a Friday evening "Declassified" concert. Conductor is Hugh Wolff. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

Anne Akiko Meyers performing Mason Bates’ Violin Concerto at a Friday evening “Declassified” concert. Conductor is Hugh Wolff. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

The NSO’s “Declassified” events start and end with meet, greet and party time. Libations are available as the audience begins to gather in the foyer outside the Concert Hall circa 8:15 p.m. or so, some 45 minutes prior to the concert’s later-than-usual curtain time of 9 p.m. Once the evening’s concert concludes, roughly 90 minutes later, party-time is back on again.

BTW, as for those libations, aka adult beverages, they’re available at the KenCen’s somewhat-higher-than-a-restaurant prices, but with an added plus: unlike Concert Hall performances in general, if you purchase a (re-usable) Declassified beverage glass, you can bring your beverage into the hall for the performance.

Friday’s concert found the foyer and environs bathed in bluish lights. First from the balcony level and later on from the Concert Hall-side Millennium Stage, the evening’s designated DJ, “Moose,” did his thing, adding to the rather non-standard, informal atmosphere of this series-within-a-series.

"Declassified" DJ "Moose" in action at the Kennedy Center. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

“Declassified” DJ “Moose” in action at the Kennedy Center. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

The Electronic Age, Information Age (or whatever one calls it these days) continued inside the Concert Hall on a large screen that almost entirely covered the organ pipes and chorister seats directly behind the stage area where the orchestra was arrayed.

For much of the time, a virtual 1980s-style computer interface flickered on and off screen in a clever display where “access failed” messages flashed at least twice before the “program” successfully booted and successfully displayed biographical info on the performers as well as special effects, including an occasional video.

This proved a useful augmentation of the sparse program notes available in the physical program, a characteristic shared with the KC Jukebox events, and likely points the way toward a future where physical programs will go the way of physical newspapers, as concertgoers will simply flip on their iPads or similar devices to download and read program notes from Kennedy Center servers.

Amusingly, at least for aging Boomers like this reviewer, the ornery computer interface that generated the info was set up to look like a cross between the buggy pre-Windows, C-prompt, Microsoft interface and the green-screen mass data dumps familiar to fans of the “Matrix” trilogy. These old-tech touches were a nice hat tip to previous generation geeks who had to put up with this stuff before today’s Xerox Parc-Macintosh style WYSIWYG interfaces became the norm.

Another amusing touch. Before the evening’s program began, the visuals reverted to a display of the organ pipes and chorister seats that the large screen was obscuring, thus restoring, at least temporarily, the normal Concert Hall visuals.

As to Mr. Bates’ compositions. My general observation is that at least thus far in his career, this composer has quite cannily walked a fine line to create crossover fare that will appeal to all three current generations—Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials—without alienating any of them.

Boomer traditionalists will appreciate the essentially tonal and (almost) traditionally classical use of a live orchestra as subtly enhanced by electronic effects; Xers who sit squarely on the crossover line will probably appreciate this even more; and most Millennials will likely be interested in how the electronica seamlessly interfaces with the kind of music they’ve rarely been interested in encountering.

In other words, the electronica in these compositions—sampled instrumental sounds that are warped, bent and multi-tracked and blended with hard, pop-style beats and more subtle and rhythmic snaps, crackles and pops—are not insanely over-the-top, thus augmenting rather than blowing out the orchestra’s natural acoustical sound.

Rather than dominate the proceedings, Mr. Bates’ compositions on this program used computerized sounds to augment the orchestral sounds, adding an electronic voice to the already exotic array of acoustic percussion instruments used in both musical scores.

On the whole, this aurally-pleasing combination seems designed to be both pleasant and interesting to a wide-range of musical tastes. Mr. Bates may have a specific path outlined for his compositions in the years ahead. But his apparently gradualist approach is likely to get a more diverse audience on board his compositional train over time.

Regarding Mr. Bates’ pair of electronically-enhanced compositions—the Violin Concerto is exclusively acoustic—the introductory “Rise of Exotic Computing” (2013) proved a good but not particularly trend-setting kickoff to the Friday evening program. But it was his more substantial 2009 composition, “The B-Sides,” that proved the more ambitious and interesting work on the program.

Background material appearing on-screen at the concert as well as in the program notes for Mr. Bates’ new CD provides two insights into “The B-Sides.” The first one is perhaps most obvious to those familiar with 1950s and 1960s 45 RPM flip sides where the most touted new song showed up on the “A-side” and something different and perhaps more experimental showed up when you flipped the 45. A similar approach has been taken by some bands today when issuing limited-content CDs that serve as “trailers” for an upcoming album.

It’s those “B-Sides” that can often prove the most eclectic and interesting, mixing musical styles and sometimes relaying subtle metaphors or stories in the process. Mr. Bates’ composition puts together an assemblage of “B-Side” ideas that unfolds something like a traditional suite or a symphony—whatever works for you. The story ideas in each section range the gamut, but seem for the most part to focus on the almost bewildering, precedent-shattering changes that have been occurring around the world and through science over at least the last three decades.

Topics range from “Broom of the System,” a musical essay on the almost magical effects supported by evolving circuits and loops; to “Gemini in the Solar Wind” with its random and perhaps deliberately vague bursts of recorded astronaut communications from already long-ago NASA missions; to “Warehouse Medicine,” a reflection on the still bombed-out hulk of a post-bankrupt Detroit, once the robust city where a previous new technology was built to conquer the world.

In addition to the minimalist-like motifs offered by the orchestra in each piece, Mr. Bates’ electronica—generated onstage by the composer and his Apple Macbook—offered hard beats, backbeats, and intriguing, floating sound imagery, like the NASA audio and the insistent, almost Saturday Night Fever-style disco dance beats that underpinned the now already ancient history of Detroit and its also-bygone Motown Age.

Behind the orchestra, the screen came alive again with flickering lights and abstract imagery for each piece. This was an interesting notion, although the morphing graphic displays were not particularly compelling.

The influences on Mr. Bates’ music are eclectic and extensive.

Bits of jazz, gamelan patterns and eastern-influenced microtones tend to show up just at the right time.

Percussion, both electronic and acoustic, is imaginative and occasionally humorous, as in the swishing, actual brooms used to emphasize the beat in “Broom of the System.”

Hat tips to previous musical eras surface abound, ranging from impressionism to Edgar Varèse and John Cage-style experimentation to Samuel Barber and John Corigliano-style 20th century Romanticism, to Phillip Glass- and Steve Reich-influenced minimalistic touches.

All these influences and more are blended into an accessible mix that looks back to the classical past and ahead into a future where what exactly constitutes a modern symphony orchestra may once again be open to question.

Whether Mr. Bates is being a bit too cautious in his approach here is an open question. But he also is clearly aware of what happens to a composer’s reputation when he regularly drives an audience away, just as the 12-tone hegemon did to classical music throughout most of the 20th century. Mr. Bates seems determined to rectify this huge, historical error, building once again on tradition while taking it to a new level.

In short, he’s a talent to watch, and it’s good to see what he’ll have up his sleeve next during his time here as the Kennedy Center’s first composer in residence.


Upcoming: The NSO’s final “Declassified” event will once again feature an interesting crossover program whose focal point will be a performance of Kurt Weill’s “Seven Deadly Sins.” The orchestra will be joined in this performance by vocal ensemble Hudson Shad as well as the wonderfully-named pop and cabaret singer Storm Large. For tickets and further information, visit the NSO pages at the Kennedy Center’s website.

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17