Review: PSO composer of year's premiere has its moments but falls short as full acoustic work


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A concert turned into a conundrum Friday night at Heinz Hall.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra unveiled a new Violin Concerto by Mason Bates. Nothing out of the ordinary here. He is, after all, the PSO's composer of the year, and the orchestra almost always commissions a work or facilitates a premiere for each of them.

Here is a composer who has succeeded in nudging the glacier that is the classical music world into the 21st century. Mr. Bates has brought the thrill and expansive qualities of electronica and dance music to it, writing works that incorporate digital sounds. But his new concerto, written for and performed by violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, takes a "step back" into purely acoustic music. That's not my words. It's his from his own program notes. And it's true. The only work that had cords and speakers was Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony, and that is only because the PSO uses a digital organ in place of a full pipe organ.

In the wake of several exhilarating pieces that gain profundity by the dialectic between the orchestra and electronica -- including two works performed at Heinz Hall recently, "Liquid Interface" and "Mothership" -- his violin concerto found him in a bit of no man's land. The brash confidence of his main repertoire, that often bring him into the performance as a sort of DJ, was lacking. Conducted by Leonard Slatkin, there were more than a few exhilarating moments and some striking musical material in the concerto, but Mr. Bates struggled to translate his aesthetic into a fully acoustic work.


Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
  • With: Violinist Anne Akiko Myers; conductor Leonard Slatkin.
  • Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
  • When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
  • Tickets: $20-$75; 412-392-4900 or www.pittsburghsymphony.org.

My question is why he even went there. Mimicking drum beats with basses striking their instruments or wood blocks as bips and clicks is fine, but why not use digital instruments? Mr. Bates has talked about a vision to bring in electronic instruments into an orchestra full time. I am not begrudging Mr. Bates from going where his muse takes him. But I am concerned that the pull of tradition may be tugging on him, making him feel he needs to prove himself as a "real" composer.

Despite the ambitious program of the work -- of the evolution of dinosaurs to birds (the first movement was titled "Archeopteryx" the last "The Rise of the Birds") -- there were some compelling musical moments. A rhythmic main theme contrasted by a ravishing lyrical melody that Ms. Akiko Meyers brought out with equally ravishing tone. Another time the violin played over the gentle undulation of clarinets. The bounding theme of the middle movement, colored with glissando, was quite impressive. The return of the first movement theme in the finale was unexpected and worked well. But there was little space in the work, little time for the release that comes with tension. It seemed to me that he had some trouble allowing contemplation, and the violinist felt pushed the entire work.

I will fully admit I might be putting too much onto Mr. Bates' back. But we need a hundred Bates to connect orchestras with today's world. Not in a token fashion but on even terms. The art of electronica wizards like Deadmau5 with the art of the orchestra. The concert itself was a case study. Opening with a lightweight Haydn symphony (No. 68) and that bombastic "Organ" Symphony, it was the premiere that compelled. Yes, Mr. Bates outdid Haydn and Saint-Saens Friday night, at least in my opinion. But it could have been more so.

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Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. He blogs at www.post-gazette.com/classicalmusings.


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