An interview with local composer Mason Bates, and some notes on the SF Symphony Opening Night.
Mason Bates is a bridge between two musical worlds, classical and techno. With a PhD in composition from Cal, he writes symphonic music by the day, and by night he DJs under the name DJ Masonic. He has been pretty successful at tugging the electronic blanket to the classical side of the bed: He is one of the most-performed living composers and has been commissioned by the the Chicago Symphony and the SF Symphony, the latter of which will release a recording of his oeuvre later this season. He will also premiere a piece for the SF Symphony this season, and Santa Fe Opera just announced that they will present his first opera based upon the life of Apple's founder Steve Jobs.
Tonight, he is turning the pillow to the other side, in an event dubbed "Mercury Soul" that brings classical music into Ruby Skye, blending it in with the beats of DJs, and making it relevant to the club crowd. It's not Mason's first attempt to get a classical music/techno dialogue out of the concert hall and into hipper outfits. We attended the first edition of Mercury Soul at Mezzanine a couple years back (and chatted with that night's conductor, Beni Shwartz). The encounter of the old with the new worked seamlessly, and now we're talking to Mason to see what we can expect tonight.
You have done a few of these events by now, before bringing it back to SF. What have you learned along the way?
Mason: It's a hard show to describe, you have to experience it. I like to think of it as a SWAT team of classical musicians visiting a huge club and colliding with the DJs. We've done a bunch around the country; we did three shows at the Chicago Symphony, one of which was in a warehouse party, we did four with the New World Symphony, and also a show with the Pittsburgh Symphony. What we learned about the show is that programming and figuring what classical music pieces you are going to play and who is going to DJ and how the DJ sets interact with the classical sets, is the absolute key to make this thing work. And we do everything we can to use the full colliding and stagecraft possibility of the venue to help the audience travel from great EDM sets to great classical sets and back.
The first show was primarily new classical music; we found it is pretty interesting to take a broader survey of all of classical. We have not only some new music from local composers, but also music from the Baroque era, we have Bach, we have some early classical years, Mendelssohn, we have early 20th century composers, like Poulenc and Stravinsky. The classical music is from all eras. And surrounding that, we have phenomenal DJ from the local SF party Housepitality partnering with us.
The thing to emphasize is that this event is a great way to get a snapshot of the classical AND electronic scene in SF. We have phenomenal local DJs and phenomenal classical musicians, featuring local composers. And it's happening at a venue, Ruby Skye, that is bigger and more over-the-top than any other. It's really an event that eople from all over the spectrum would appreciate to see. What we like about Ruby Skye, is that there is a really big open primary space. This event is all about bringing different kinds of musics into one space. So it's important to find a venue with a nice open area; this has a big stage, but we are also going to build smaller platform stages in the audience. People can go and look at the DJs and musicians up close.
The other composer is Gabriella Lena Frank, she's a Peruvian-American composer, who has this stunning piece being played by the Del Sol string quartet, a pretty renownd local indie classical group. We also have the Thalea string quartet playing one of the Mendelssohn string quartets. We have members of the group called the Elevate Ensemble, playing my piece "the rise of exotic computing" for chamber orchestra and electronics. All the classical musicians fade in and out of DJ sets. They are playing composed interludes that are mixed in and out. At midnight, we'll have a chamber orchestra of twenty people playing an electro-acoustic piece than gets mixed out by DJs of Housepitality. There are more live musicians playing with DJs on this show than most people would see anywhere else. It's both impactful for the classical and for the DJ communities. We have a local conductor, Christian Baldini, conducting some of the pieces. He specializes in new music, which is why we wanted him involved. He has done work with eletronic, and you have to integrate with the DJ sets, that's key to this show.
You are composing a work for the SF Symphony, titled Auditorium, which focuses on ancient music rather than techno, that Pablo Heras-Casado will conduct in April.
Mason: Auditorium takes as its premise a modern orchestra that's haunted by an old soul from its past. I'm writing neo-baroque music for old instruments, like period instruments. I'm recording those sounds, and remixing and processing these sounds in the modern orchestra. It's almost like you can take the SF Symphony and haunt them with different technology in these old instruments. The SF Symphony does not play on period instruments; I'm working with the period instruments now and recording them myself and processing the sounds in very imaginative ways. The piece is very much informed by very old music, but the approach is highly informed by digital technology, in the way that I'm going to remix the sound.
It's going to sound quite different, but Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin is a phenomenal piece that processes Baroque and early classical influences through the sound world of Ravel. And it's interesting to hear a composer who is so lush in a kind of leaner instrumentation. This piece will share the program with that piece. They both will be coming at this idea of the old and new in very different ways.
Many composers get interested in this at a different point. What is different about Auditorium, I am actually using electronically processed recording of ancient instruments. For me, it's turning it on its head, using ancient instruments that will appear through this scrim of digital technology. It's something that has not happened before and that I look forward to exploring it.
I've done many things with Michael [Tilson-Thomas] and I love working with him. It's interesting to work with the Symphony and with different conductors sometimes. When Mass transmission was premiered in the American Mavericks Festival, it was conducted by Donato Cabrera, the resident conductor at the symphony. Sometimes, Michael likes to conduct a piece and sometimes he looks for somebody else who would be a good a match. Pablo is fluent in so many genres. I've known him at the Chicago Symphony where he's done a lot of work. Michael, even today, I was emailing with him about this piece; he's a real mentor for me. I was asking a specific suggestion about some more esoteric stuff about Baroque music and he was giving me some tips. Whether he's on the podium or not, he's a key guy for me. Michael has so many fascinations one would never know about. One of them: the Beach Boys, he loves Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. You would never get that from going to the Symphony. Baroque music does not necessary lend itself to modern symphonic programming, the instrumentation is different, it's smaller, but he's pretty passionate about it. Because it does not appear on the program does not mean that Michael is not obsessing about it.
We were surprised by the announcement of your opera on the life of Steve Jobs, we were not aware of your writing for human voice.
Mason: There has been several song cycles. But your point is, people don't identify me with vocal music. They think of symphonic and electronic music. I actually got into music as a choir kid in Virginia, I was singing in the Episcopal choir. Some of my first compositions were for chorus. I've done a lot with Chanticleer, locally. For me, the human voice has always been a part of music making. It has not featured prominently in my symphonic work.
Opera is a specific challenge. You have to write a real drama that works, a killer orchestra piece, and more importantly than anything else, vocal lines that sit with the singers. We're working on that challenge. Casting is a big part of the equation.
The Steve Jobs opera, were you approached to write it, or did you pitch it?
Mason: I've known them for many years, they knew what I was doing, but this was essentially a pitch. I had an idea of how we could tell the story of Steve Jobs. I've seen [librettist] Mark Campbell's work and he's a very interesting person to shape this. It's a very non linear, non-chronological presentation. It was something he could do especially well, while grounding it with real numbers, arias that I could set. We brought it to Santa Fe, and they really got behind it. It's a lot of great things about that company, such great history over the years.
The operas go around. This particular opera, the (r)evolution of steve jobs has a prehistory to it. Santa Fe has the longest record of presenting new work from anybody in the country. Their history, with Stravinsky coming there, they really know how to do it. It happens at a time of year many people are available and come and check it out. It's a really nice place to launch a new piece.
The opera is based on public sources, so much of Jobs' life was played in public. His relationship with daughter, how he got fired from Apple. It's a more fractured approach, but it all connects to the basic theme of his life: how do you miniaturize human communication when people are so messy. You can't control evreybody. Jobs' wife Lauren has a key role in that.
We don't have a blessing from anybody. We certainly love for them to hear it. You have to give them the respect of letting them know what's happening, but not necessarily ask for a stamp of approval. It's a very respectful portrait. It's a funny thing to be interacting with these devices all the time and what they really mean in how we communicate and how your life has change. We could not do mercury soul without a couple mac books. We have life electronica mixing in. It's amazing how my world musically has been enabled by the development of these devices.
SF Symphony opening night: The SF Gala opening happened two weeks later than usual, owing to the orchestra touring in Europe. MTT took a few moments to celebrate the acclaim they received on the tour, humble-bragging it was all about the orchestra. We know better, Michael, we know better. The Gala was the usual well lubricated ear-pleasing fest, where the program's goal is to put people in a happy mood for the party in the big tent and on a blocked-to-traffic Grove Street afterwards.
The first half was a substantial symphonic work with a party theme, Respighi's Roman Festivals, played forcefully by the orchestra. We were happy to see new and familiar faces. The new timpanist, Michael Israelievitch, found himself fully featured, Respighi is using a big orchestra with a full complement of percussion. Bells! And SF treasure and principal trumpet Mark Inouye was in his chair, despite rumors to the contrary. We thought of Respighi as an Italian Darius Milhaud, which may be a little inside baseball. But Roman Festivals echos the Boeuf sur le toit in its switches of pace and overall tonal color.
The gala audience waited patiently for the meaty fare to subside, as the second half was excerpts of musicals sung by opera superstar Nathan Gunn, soprano Alexandra Silber and TV baritone Kelsey Grammer. The latter was both the worst singer of the bunch (albeit quite competent) and yet the biggest draw. Go figure. We were wondering what other role Grammer has had, outside of Frasier Crane. Especially since he was singing the part of Dr. Higgins in My Fair Lady, who is yet another insufferable snob who condescends to anyone around him in an effete accent. And who cares? He owns the type, and provided wonderful comedy. Silber got into the festive mood by shimmying more than necessary, but all in good fun.
The lyrics of the songs were projected for the singers on a large screen in the back, prompted the comment from the audience: what is this, karaoke night? It proved helpful for the sing-along encore.
For all of Grammer's worthy efforts, the star of the show turned out to be an un-announced guest, Stephanie Blythe. She turned down the amplification (we were surprised Gunn did not as well, his voice is big enough) and belted a rousing rendition of You'll never walk alone from Carousel. Time stopped. She stole the show in Sweeney Todd across the street, as Eve astutely pointed out in her review. She did it again in the Symphony. What. A. Voice.Kelsey Grammer sings in front of the SF Symphony. Photo: Moanalani Jeffrey