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Mason Bates and Thievery Corporation at the Kennedy Center

Written By | May 17, 2017

Thievery Corporation at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. (Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center)

WASHINGTON, May 17, 2017 – We’ve been intrigued with the Kennedy Center’s composer-in-residence Mason Bates and his energetic attempt to bridge the gap that exists among fans of classical music, rock and electronica.

From his “KC Jukebox” series of events to special concerts highlighting his own and other young composers’ contemporary works, he seems to have been developing the kinds of new audiences and concertgoers that venues like the KenCen will need in the years and decades ahead to keep all that venue’s seats filled.

Bates’ most recent special event, held Monday in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, was part classical electronica but mostly a loud and splashy appearance by the rock-electronica group Thievery Corporation.

Driven by Rob Garza and Eric Hilton plus a batch of skilled veteran musicians and soloists, Thievery Corp., accompanied by members of the National Symphony Orchestra directed during the evening by composer-conductor Teddy Abrams, presented an array of splashy, familiar tunes that had been set to original, augmented arrangements by a number of contemporary classical composers.

Rob Garza and Eric Hilton. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

The concert began with a pair of contemporary classical works, namely Mason Bates’ highly regarded “The Rise of Exotic Computing” and the Finale excerpted from Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla’s “Sinfonietta.”

Blending orchestral music with electronica, set in motion in this performance by the composer, Bates’ piece grows and morphs from relative simplicity to pulsating complexity with a relentless, perpetual motion drive reflecting the direction of our current age.

A bit more familiar in structure, the Piazzolla Finale, or final movement, possessed its own drive, modernist in tone and structure but moving along with a subtle but decided Latin influence, leaving one to wish that the rest of the work had been included on the program.

But, as we’ve already noted, the classical works that opened the program seemed more like a table-setting or a selection of hors d’oeuvres for the main event, which was that flashy, punchy, attention grabbing set by Thievery Corporation that turned the evening toward a celebration of rock, hip-hop and club music.

Frankly, we had been expecting something of a different mix, given the KenCen’s PR blurb emphasizing Thievery Corp.’s “bossa nova influences,” something we couldn’t readily detect in the music that followed the ensemble’s introduction Monday evening.

The arrangements of popular contemporary tunes were commissioned from several young classical composers including Timo Andres, Teddy Abrams, Olga Bell, Chris Cerrone and Anna Clyne. But in general, what they produced seemed less Latin-influenced than they were various hip-hop riffs. We found the arrangements splashy and interesting but not particularly exceptional, musically speaking.

However, each number was performed with tremendous energy and enthusiasm as both the instrumentalists and soloists reached out to a big, relatively youthful audience that was there to seem them and seemed good to go.

In other words, this hour-long concert event was not really what we expected. But it seemed to be exactly what was the majority of Monday’s large and noisy audience came to see and hear. The performances were too heavily amped for our acoustic music-accustomed ears. But on the other hand, the audience got exactly what they were looking for, so most in attendance would likely regard the evening as having been a success.

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