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Composer Mason Bates

Review: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini | Dallas Symphony Orchestra | Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center


Spinning the Classics

The Dallas Symphony goes out of its comfort zone with a young, living, electronic composer; plus an admirable performance from artist-in-residence Conrad Tao.



published Friday, January 16, 2015

Photo: Mason Bates
DJ Mason Bates performing with an orchestra (not DSO)

Dallas — The Dallas Symphony, playing in the Meyerson Symphony Center, started out 2015 with something that is a rarity in their programming: a work by a living composer, and a young one at that. We also heard a precocious prodigy of a pianist zip through Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The (very) long program ended with an admirable reading of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7.

In their continuing tribute to former musical director Eduardo Mata, the DSO is observing the 20th anniversary of his untimely death with a piece he championed: Carlos Chávez’ Sinfonía India, his Symphony No 2. (Mata was music director from 1977 to 1993 and was granted the title of Music Director Emeritus when he retired; Mata studied composition with Chávez.)

The “India” of the title refers to the Mexican indigenous tribes from which Chávez harvested melodies and other folk materials. It is supposedly in three movements, to be played without a pause, but it is so short that it comes off more like a single standard three-part piece with a slow middle section.

It was impossible to see what the percussionists were playing, but the score asks for some native instruments that are hard to come by, such as a tenabari (made from butterfly chrysalises) and a grijutian (made from deer hooves). Chávez gives some more standard replacements but considering the care the DSO percussionists give to everything, it wouldn’t be a surprise if some of the many rattles were coming from cocoons or deer hooves.

Photo: Courtesy
Conrad Tao

Mason Bates, a DJ and composer in his late 30’s, was present to play the DJ-esque computer part for his three-movement symphonic poem, Liquid Interface, which dates from 2007. The sight of a computer in the orchestra can send you into quaking fears left over from the 20th century’s foray into Musique Concrète and other schools of electronic music (really more like manipulated sounds) that assaulted us for decades.

Fear not with Mason Bates, whose music is a grab bag of influences from Puccini and the minimalists to rock and jazz with some Zen-like held chords tossed into the mix. He overlays all of this with electronica he created from musical and nonmusical sources. Liquid Interface pulls on all of this to tell the tale of water on the planet. It starts with the actual (very loud) sound of the break up of glaciers and moves on to observing water on microscopic level. Some visuals would have greatly enhanced the performance.

Bates stood in the back of the orchestra with his Mac notebook, playing various noises and sounds. More importantly, he was a secondary conductor, bouncing up and down on the beats, as a vital assist to Music Director Jaap van Zweden. It was remarkable how complex plain ol’ 4/4 could sound.

His piece held interest throughout, mostly because of all of the odd sounds and lush harmonic scoring, but it felt long. In some places, it sounded like listening to music in apartment 3A while the kitchen in 3B was being remolded. In other spots, it sounded like the earth was wiped clean by an extinction-level tsunami.

Bates is a fine composer and his exploration of sounds and expansion of what we call “classical” music is a most welcome breath of fresh air. He has thrown open the curtains and raised the windows on an art form that is relegating itself to museum status. Bringing in the influences that the younger generation will recognize, such as techno music, they may just stay for the Dvořák to hear more of the influence on dance music—this time from the 19th century Bohemia.

Conrad Tao holds the nonspecific title of artist-in-residence with the DSO this season. The very young musician (born in 1994) is a composer, pianist and violinist. The DSO commissioned The World Is Very Different Now, observing the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. The piece debuted on Nov. 21, 2013 to mixed reviews (mine is here).

Rachmaninoff’s set of variations is one of his most popular compositions. The 18th variation has transcended the work and moved into the vox popular because of its use in many movies, such as the 1980 romantic fantasy Somewhere in Time.

Tao, informally dressed in an open shirt and what looked like black jeans, displayed impeccable technique and this blur of nimble fingers defined his approach. It was clean and crystal clear, bordering on brittle. Some warmth throughout, not just in the lush melodic parts, would have been welcome. In fact, his playing was so crystalline and precise that it was reminiscent of a computer playing back a score or Glenn Gould’s Bach.

This is not to say that his performance lacked nuance, because there were many lovely turns of phrases. However, it left the impression that he was impatient to get through the slow parts and back to the flights of virtuosity. Van Zweden tends to push tempi, as does Tao, so the performance sounded rushed throughout.

Musically, the variation form is by its nature a series of short studies. In this piece, they are meant to be played without pause. However, Tao and van Zweden, for better or worse, frequently paused between them long enough for the listener to be aware of the seam. This made the performance sound choppy.

But there is no denying Tao’s brilliance and technical mastery. All of the above reservations about the performance are the sins of the young. As he matures as a musician, we can expect some amazing performances in the future.

Dvořák’s seventh symphony is one of the composer’s finest efforts and always a welcome addition to any symphonic program.

In many ways, this was a memorable performance. The orchestra sounded wonderful; world class, actually. All of the solo passages were beautifully played. It will be rare to hear such intonation in the winds and brass. The depth of ability in the string sections produced such excellent ensemble playing that it sounded like one instrument playing. Van Zweden has superlative musicianship and knows exactly what he wants. His sense of the architecture of this symphony let us appreciate Dvořák’s overall design as well as all of the stunning moments he creates along the way.

The problem, as is often the case with van Zweden, was his inability to relax and let the music unfold on its own. He drives the playing with such intensity that it sounds rushed even if it is going along in an appropriate tempo. There were times when he was conducting in a slow two-pattern that he did a very fast, and completely unnecessary, four-pattern on the upbeat (presumably to burn off excess energy).

As frequently happens these days, we heard a fine performance, as well played as you will hear anywhere, that was restrained just short of the spectacular line. Thanks For Reading





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Spinning the Classics
The Dallas Symphony goes out of its comfort zone with a young, living, electronic composer; plus an admirable performance from artist-in-residence Conrad Tao.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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