Mason Bates made his mark as a composer by breathing a fresh energy with the addition of electronic beats in his orchestral works. A composer for the symphony by day, he moonlights as a DJ and has been trying to invigorate the classical music landscape by bringing it into new settings and by bringing new sounds into it. He succeeded, being listed as the second most performed living American composer (after another Bay Area resident, John Adams) a couple years back, and his first opera, the (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is opening this summer in Santa Fe, NM. The recording of his oeuvre by the SF Symphony nabbed a Grammy nomination. So it felt both a surprise and an opportunity that his Cello concerto, which received its bay area premiere on Thursday night with the Berkeley Symphony, was strictly an acoustic affair.
Surprise because Bates' music is so intertwined with his electronic DJ alter ego, and it's hard to imagine one without the other; and opportunity, since we could glimpse into his orchestral composing chops without having to squint through the veneer of electronica that is typically layered upon and into it. If anyone felt the added electronica was a gimmick, here was the chance to prove them wrong.
Mason went full acoustic, and that meant filling up the stage to the gills with musicians, the usual string, brass, woodwind suspects but also harp, piano, celesta, and a list of percussions that reads like poetry: timpani, tam-tam and tambourine, finger cymbals and suspended cymbals, triangle, crotales, vibraphone, kalimba and marimba, almglocken and glockenspiel, piccolo snare drum and bass drum, low Asian drum and hi-hat, woodblock and sandpaper blocks, two flexible switches and crash cymbals.
It seems a bit counterproductive to assemble such large ensemble for a cello concerto, where everyone is subservient to the soloist; that is true in this case, it is almost classically constructed in three movements, with the cello at the forefront through most of the 25 minutes of the piece. The orchestra looked much larger than it sounded. At first, it offered some percussive interjections behind the long meandering lines of the cello, reminiscent of the Chinese opera, slapping woodblocks to punctuate sentences. At the cello, Joshua Roman led from memory with technical assurance and a warm lyrical tone. He gave his all. The cello lines is a collage of influences, going from small repetitive motives to short echoes of Bach partitas to the open string entrance of the Berg violin concerto in the second movement, but it is hard to discern the overarching point. The whole performance felt so serious and somewhat ponderous. The cello writing seemed more comfortable in the slow melodies. The fast scales and bravura moments for the cellist seemed written by the number.
There were delightful snippets, as a tender duet between the soloist and the first cello of the orchestra in the slow movement; and the bouncy syncopation at the start of the third movements brought life to the sonic landscape. An interlude where Roman played the strings with a guitar pick sounds better on paper than in practice: It's hard to project sound from a cello this way, and sounded muddled. The concerto recapitulates with the vibe of the opening movement, with Roman glad to pick up the bow that he worried would fall from his lap. Roman gave an exquisite encore, Mark Summer's "Julie-O", full of fun and whimsy, somehow voicing multiple lines effortlessly.
There are many subplots to a Berkeley symphony performance: There's the conductor question. Will music director Joana Carneiro be on the podium? No, she's expecting and will miss this season. The Zellerbach Hall question: How will the cavernous hall sound? Answer: The constellation system works perfectly in Bates, but in the Beethoven symphony, where the orchestra is smaller, the sound coming from the side speakers is distracting. How will the substitute conductor perform? Christian Reif, the German resident conductor of the SF Symphony led a lean and muscular Fourth Symphony by Beethoven, and kept everyone in sync in the Bates. He inherited the program, but made the most of it.