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National Symphony Orchestra’s Mason Bates explosion

Written By | Apr 18, 2016

WASHINGTON, April 17, 2016 – Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra celebrated what amounted to a Mason Bates Festival this past weekend, devoting a pair of series concerts and a special Friday evening “Declassified” concert to works by the Kennedy Center’s current composer-in-residence.

All three concerts focused on Anne Akiko Meyers’ high-energy performance of Mr. Bates’ 2012 Violin Concerto, while the Thursday and Saturday evening concerts also included works by Samuel Barber and Charles Ives on the menu, marking these programs one of those rare classical music events exclusively highlighting 20th and 21st century American composers.

About today’s new music…

Before we begin, I’d like to point out something I’ve been mentioning with increasing frequency over the past few years: Long, long ago when I was a bit younger, both Boomer and Greatest Generation classical music fans instinctively avoided any and all symphony programs that promised much more than a smattering of contemporary European or American compositions.

The reason why: a great many contemporary and primarily academic composers of the time were ruthless champions of the 12-tone compositional school. Their always experimental, highly dissonant compositions were devoid of tunes or even recognizable motifs, and audiences came to hate them. Such music may have received plaudits in academia, but it failed to spin the turnstiles in the concert hall, gradually leading to a tradition of empty seats for any concert program that prominently featured such works.

Quietly, however, a new generation of composers began to change things. Beginning, perhaps, with minimalism, younger composers started a tentative shift back in the direction of traditional tonal music, though not its manner.

In recent years, that shift has grown considerably more pronounced. It’s now become so widespread that I’d strongly suggest that classical audiences give at least some of this new music—like the kind we’ve just heard—another chance.

Under the familiar baton of Hugh Wolff, familiar here as an associate conductor during the reign of Mstislav Rostropovich, the NSO’s Thursday and Saturday programs offered a highly array of works by three American composers. Each composition percolates with a refreshing, youthful enthusiasm, an All-American irrational exuberance (to appropriate Alan Greenspan’s famous phrase) bordering on brashness.

There was nothing to fear on this program and a great deal to like, which made the rows of empty seats in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall—particularly those in the box seating area—rather disappointing.

Barber’s “School for Scandal Overture”

Thursday’s concert opened with Samuel Barber’s “School for Scandal Overture.” Composed and revised between 1931 and 1932 when the 21-year old composer was still a student at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, this playful work is not really an overture so much as it is a riff on the nuttiness of the characters in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s famous late-18th century comic drama.

This is not the more complex music of the composer’s maturity, but it radiates with confidence and fun. Although the NSO seemed to get off to a raggedy start in the overture’s opening bars, Maestro Wolff quickly got things in synch, and the orchestra gave a brisk, bubbly reading of Barber’s still popular score.

That set the mood for Mr. Bates’ Violin Concerto, which followed. It was actually commissioned by the violin soloist, Anne Akiko Meyers, who has a tradition of supporting the work of newer composers.

Mason Bates. (Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center)

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

Mason Bates’ Violin Concerto

Mr. Bates concerto—premiered by Ms. Meyers with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2012—is in a way a thank-you present for her support, loaded as it is with showy, virtuosic moments for the soloist and a shimmering, percussion-colored score that’s to surprise audiences with its affability.

The concerto is an imaginative work consisting of the traditional three movements, in this case played without a pause and patterned less traditionally on an underlying frame story, almost in the manner of a tone poem. It is also completely acoustic, devoid of the rhythmic and occasionally tonal computer arrays of new and sampled sound that the composer often deploys in his crossover compositions.

In the present case, that story is the musically expressed evolution of an ancient, rather ponderous dinosaur-bird, Archaeopterix (movement one) as it transforms over millennia into different species (as we see through fossil evidence in Lakebed Memories (movement two) before morphing at last into the seemingly endless variety of modern birds that exist today (in the Finale entitled “The Rise of Birds”).

With roots in minimalism, late Romanticism and perhaps a touch of Impressionism and colored with imaginative splashes from an impressive and unusual array of orchestral percussion instruments (including East Asian gongs and bells), the concerto seems always to be in flight, soaring on thermals at times, fluttering about and landing on occasion, yet constantly alert for whatever may appear on the horizon.

In a way, the violinist serves as the guiding “bird spirit” expressing the varying moods and sensations of this constantly evolving creature by means of a central motif and variations on that motif. Deceptively simple at first, the violin part grows in difficulty and complexity before taking off in an exciting cadenza in the finale.

For her part, Ms. Meyers has taken this still-new concerto and made it her own, adding a kind of sublime excitement to an already interesting, almost New Age-y score, the kind of music that may finally succeed in warming audiences once again to a new kind of classical music that’s being created by still-living composers. The interplay between soloist and orchestra was excellent and nicely choreographed by Mr. Wolf.

Another plus: unlike many contemporary composers, Mr. Bates’ substantial percussion section is more for color than for outright noise, something that sometimes overwhelms even some of the best of contemporary classical works.

For the most part, the percussion here comes in subtle brush strokes rather than in extended artillery strikes. That kind of moderation is a good thing, especially in a concerto like this one where the percussion could simply overwhelm the soloist. The overall musical balance is excellent throughout, with perhaps only a few bars here and there overshadowing the violin.

Charles Ives, pursuing another of his favorite activities. (Image via Wikipedia entry on Charles Ives)

Charles Ives, pursuing another of his favorite activities. (Image via Wikipedia entry on Charles Ives)

Ives’ Symphony No. 2

Thursday’s concert concluded with a composition that really should be a lot better known and loved by audiences than it is today, the Symphony No. 2 of Charles Ives (1874-1954). The music of this iconoclastic and highly individualistic American composer was virtually unknown in his own time and remained relatively unfamiliar until it suddenly became somewhat fashionable in the 1960s. (The Symphony No. 2 itself, composed between 1900 and 1902, did not receive its premiere performance until 1951!)

The Yale-educated Ives’ early output exhibited his fondness of and familiarity with American hymns and popular tunes as well as collegiate sports and fight songs, understandable as he also enjoyed playing undergraduate baseball and football. Quite a few of these tunes pop up in his Second Symphony.

Part of the reason that audience opinion varies on Ives’ music is his iconoclastic approach. Instead of making a living in music, he earned his living as a prominent and eventually wealthy insurance executive, similar in manner to America’s famous businessman-poet, Wallace Stevens. This left him free to compose increasingly experimental music because he felt like it, resulting in difficult compositions that deployed wrenching dissonances and tone clusters, multi-layered tempos, and long passages without time signatures. Much of this music was never performed in his lifetime.

But the Second Symphony, which I regard as Ives’ more or less final foray into traditional tonality, belongs in the period before his musical break. It’s a sheer delight, loaded with sophisticated musical jokes along with a compendium of 19th century band music, hymns and popular and college tunes. Listening to this symphony is like playing a game of classical music Trivial Pursuit.

It also proves that Ives, despite his later idiosyncrasies, always knew exactly what he was doing. He is a master of mood and orchestration and knows all the rules while also knowing where he can tweak them for fun. In his symphony, we get short, perfectly executed fugues, classical counterpoint, and, at least once in awhile, traditional structures.

But it’s a serious symphony that’s not serious at all.

That’s because we also get musical parodies, particularly of Beethoven and Wagner. Ives frequently quotes the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—minus one beat—and mimics Wagnerian orchestration in the brass choir, which simulates passages that could belong to “Tannhäuser” and/or “Meistersinger.” Except that they don’t.

American music-wise, we also hear a few hymn tunes along with snatches of Stephen Foster (particularly “Camptown Races”), a spiritual or two, a few bars from college songs, and a full treatment of Ives’ favorite patriotic tune, “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.” Quoted briefly near the beginning of the symphony, that march theme returns fully transformed to conclude the final movement, amusingly introduced by a few bars of “Reveille.”

But even that rousingly patriotic finale concludes with a musical joke. Instead of ending on the expected major-key chord, that last note is a horrific tone cluster of wrong notes. I like to think of this as Ives’ final farewell to the Romantic Era as he set compositional sail for an entirely New World.

I haven’t had the opportunity to hear the Second live for many years, and the NSO’s performance incorporated some scholarly revisions to the score that weren’t familiar to me. That said, under Mr. Wolff—who actually conducted the orchestra’s previous performance of this work in 1988—the NSO’s Thursday evening performance reminded me of the best recordings I’ve heard of this work.

The strings were spot on, solo moments were well-executed, the brass took on a variety of colorings ranging from Wagnerian drama to college fight songs, and the entire ensemble seemed at one with the all-American sense of patriotism, nostalgia, fun and contempt for authority that this symphony clearly embodies, particularly with that final Bronx cheer, that disrespectful blat with which it concludes.

That last chord, or whatever it is, succinctly summed up what an increasing number of Americans think about official Washington today.

The ghost of Charles Ives would probably agree.

Note: This version of our review corrects the misspelling of Maestro Hugo Wolff’s name in a previous version. CDN regrets the error.

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