Mason Bates: New ‘KC Jukebox’ season off and running

Eclectic, innovative new multimedia music series created by Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Mason Bates, launched new season in October, with more to come.

Mason Bates (R) and Guest Artist Daniel Roumain (L) in action, as the Kennedy Center's KC Jukebox presents Mason Bates' Mercury Soul. Photo © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016.

WASHINGTON, November 14, 2016 – “KC Jukebox,” last year’s hit crossover concerts created by Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Mason Bates, surprised local audiences by fusing classical music with elements of electro-pop and funk, drawing audiences from all age groups to attend unique concert-hall experiences without the concert hall.

Composer Mason Bates. (Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center)
Composer Mason Bates. (Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center)

For the most part, each event—the best term we can think of to describe them—unfolded in the KenCen’s Atrium space, which was gussied up for each occasion like a music club or lounge, complete with casual but minimal seating, encouraging guests to mix and discuss the music as it unfolded. Small dance areas of floors were available for those in the mood, and cash bars were available on either end of the space to further aid in creating the music/DJ club-style ambience.

Mr. Bates launched Season 2 of KC Jukebox on October 24, 2016 dubbing this musical happening “Mercury Soul,” naming it after a classical/electronica fusion project he initially co-created in San Francisco and again in Chicago.

This edition of Mercury Soul was fashioned as a classical music-focused dance music anthology tracking dance music throughout the musical ages, with selections ranging from J.S. Bach through contemporary American masters like John Adams.

Arrayed across three sub-spaces defined in the Kennedy Center’s flexible Atrium space, musicians were focused in the central space along with this series’ standard cash bars offering adult beverages in the adjacent wings and casual seating scattered through the entire space. The idea is to experience a classical music-electronica meld in a uniquely club-like setting meant to attract a mixed to younger audience that’s often accustomed to avoiding encounters with classical music altogether.

As a result, the musical performances themselves are not traditional sit-down classical concert affairs. Instead, the evening unfolds more like a party where conversations and perhaps even a bit of spontaneous dancing are encouraged.

“Mercury Soul” proved to be yet another variation on KC Jukebox format, which blends acoustic classical music with electronica, DJ mixes via Mr. Bates’ trusty Apple MacBook, and plenty of punchy percussion to back everything up, generating an atmosphere very much like a cutting edge club.

Guest artist, composer-violinist Daniel Roumain, opened the evening, accompanied by Bates’ alter-ego, “DJ Masonic,” disk jockey extraordinaire. Both performers punched up the atmospherics with an ever-varying array of percussive background mixes.

An unusual aspect of this event was the innovative way Mr. Bates and Mr. Roumain aurally floated their musical patterns over to the centrally situated members of the small orchestral ensemble with some help from the staffers running the large but unobtrusive electronic console controlling the extensive but unobtrusive array of speakers in the Atrium space.

They accomplished this electronic handover by means of what we’ll describe as suspended ostinato-like intervals or patterns functionally similar to Broadway musical “vamps”—repetitive bars or motifs serving to sustain the musical atmosphere between scenes or set changes. These effectively transported the prelude segment of the concert over to the instrumentalists on the central stage via an electronic, surround sound-like fade that floated the musical focus of the audience elsewhere in the space.

The instrumental segments—again, classical music enhanced or underpinned by relentlessly percussive yet hypnotic background electronica—were conducted by alternative classical expert Benjamin Schwartz. Mr. Schwartz, along with Mason Bates and visual designer Anne Patterson, originated the Mercury Soul concept on America’s Left Bank, eventually carrying it to Chicago, and now to the nation’s capital.

As with previous KC Jukebox events, this one was attended by an audience spanning all age groups, something that’s still more than a bit unusual at classical music-oriented concerts these days. Most seemed to get into the spirit of the event, enjoying an insistently rhythmic electronic environment that included sights and sounds and, perhaps most importantly, an informative non-printed program that flashes bios and program notes on screens throughout the house.

This ongoing virtual program provided detailed information on what was happening in and around the performers as well as details on the composers and compositions themselves. It’s another signature of KC Jukebox events which really require listeners to wander about the performance space to discover what each event is all about—the opposite of the standard concert hall experience.

Our only complaint with regard October’s edition of KC Jukebox: a pair of 15-minute “intermissions.” True, the electronica (and Mr. Roumain) kept the background music going during these intervals. But on a work night (Monday), the pair of breaks stretched the program out, making it a bit too long for those who needed to get home and get a good night’s sleep. As a result, at least a third of the audience drifted out prior to the evening’s conclusion.

A program of this length is okay on a weekend. But it was functionally too long for anyone who needed to get up early for the next day’s 9 to 5 drag, particularly in a notoriously workaholic city like Washington.

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)


If you missed the first installment of KC Jukebox, not to worry. There’s more Jukebox action on tap a bit later this season. Here’s a list of incoming attractions, beginning in 2017:

January 30: “Ravishment,” described in a KenCen release as “an eclectic evening exploring hot-off-the-presses chamber music.”

February 22: A concert featuring guest soloist Victor Gama, billed as an “Angolan-born composer and instrument builder.”

May 2: Something completely different, mainly, an appearance by the world-renowned choristers known as Chanticleer. On tap in this wide-ranging program will be the world premiere of a co-commissioned work by Mason Bates, title TBA.

May 15: The season’s final KC Jukebox event promises to be a DJ extravaganza, featuring a well-known DMV DJ “collective” known as Thievery Corporation. Not one but two shows will be available on this date, times TBA.

With regard to Mr. Bates himself, the National Symphony Orchestra will be performing three of his works in the second half of the current concert season, including:

April 20-22: Mr. Bates’ Liquid Interface will be performed during this NSO regular season program, which will be conducted by Cristian Mačelaru.

May 24: In case you didn’t know, May 29, 2017 marks the centennial of former president John F. Kennedy’s birth, an event the Kennedy Center—America’s national center for the performing arts—has been celebrating in various ways since May 2017. In this May 24, 2017 concert, a newly commissioned work by Mr. Bates (TBA) commemorating the JFK birthday centennial will be unveiled. Scored for orchestra, electronica and a mezzo-soprano voice, the work will explore the former president’s close association with the arts and will include excerpts from the work of famed New England poet—and JFK favorite—Robert Frost, as well as several excerpts from JFK’s own often-memorable speeches.

June 8-10: Guest conductor Edo de Waart will be in town to conduct the NSO in a program featuring Garages of the Valley, previewed as all-acoustic celebration of Silicon Valley’s tech visionaries. Perhaps this music will give us some hint as to what we might expect from Mr. Bates’ brand new opera on Steve Jobs, which is being readied for its world premiere performances during the summer 2017 season of the renowned Santa Fe Opera.

Note: This article incorporates material from an earlier review.

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