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‘Mercury Soul’: Mason Bates, KC Jukebox return to the KenCen

Written By | Nov 1, 2016

WASHINGTON, November 1, 2016 — Mason Bates, the Kennedy Center’s Composer-in-Residence, launched Season 2 of his innovative “KC Jukebox” music experience this Monday past, dubbing this musical happening “Mercury Soul.” The event was named after a classical/electronica fusion project he originally co-created in San Francisco.

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.

Most KC Jukebox events have taken place in the Kennedy Center’s top floor Atrium space, and this one was no exception. Arrayed across three spaces, with musicians focused in the center space with cash bars offering adult beverages set up in the adjacent wings, and casual seating scattered through all spaces.

The musical performances themselves are not traditional sit-down classical concert affairs, however. 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 Bates’ trusty Apple PowerBook, and plenty of punchy percussion to back everything up, creating an atmosphere very much like a club.

Guest artist, composer-violinist Daniel Roumain, opened the evening, accompanied by Bates’ alter-ego—DJ Masonic, disk jockey extraordinaire—who punched up the atmospherics with an ever-varying, percussive background mix.

An unusual aspect of this event was the innovative way Bates and Roumain passed their musical intervals on to the centrally situated members of the small orchestral ensemble via suspended ostinato-like intervals—something like Broadway musical vamps in between scenes or sets—that served to pass the prelude segment over to the instrumentalists via an electronic, surround sound-like fade that redirected the musical focus elsewhere in the space.

The instrumental segments—enhanced with background electronica—were conducted by alternative classical expert Benjamin Schwartz, who, along with Mason Bates and visual designer Anne Patterson originated the Mercury Soul concept in San Francisco. Since then, they have carried the idea to Chicago and now to Washington, D.C.

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, and most seemed to enjoy the relentlessly rhythmic electronic environment, which included sights and sounds as well as 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.

Our only complaint with regard to this 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), these breaks stretched the program out, making it a bit too long. As a result, at least 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.

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