Sunday, February 25, 2007

Review: National Symphony

with composer Mason Bates, violinist Janine Jansen
Feb. 24, Kennedy Center, Washington

The couple settled into ninth-row seats and began reading their program books. A few minutes later:

Oh, a world premiere – a ‘water symphony’ with electronica. Mason Bates, composer and electronica.

Electronica . . .

That stuff they use in, you know, trance music.

Ah. Twenty-four minutes of trance music. And then the Mendelssohn.

* * *

Anticipatory exchanges like that are probably common when Mason Bates presents his music to a symphony audience. Loudspeakers are suspended on either side of the stage, rock-concert style. The program note mentions "techno" and "trip-hop," terms understood dimly at best by people over 30. (The couple I’ve quoted looked to be in their 40s.) An expectation forms, involving (1) loudness, (2) recollection of a scene from a cop show, with throbbing music, woozy lighting and kids overdosing on a bad batch of ecstasy, (3) "What is my kid doing right now?" and/or "I shouldn’t have used so much vinaigrette on the salad."

Bates defies that expectation, among others, in his "Liquid Interface," commissioned by the National Symphony and introduced over the weekend. (I heard the third of three performances.) In four movements, timed much like a classical symphony but scored for large modern orchestra augmented by electronic sounds from a computer and drum pad, the piece evokes water in its frozen, liquid and hazy states, and in its contrasting roles as life-sustainer and destructive force.

That’s a lot of evocation to pack into 24 minutes. No chance to trance. Bates adds to the perceptual mix specific visual references and recorded nature sounds – glaciers calving (first movement); a New Orleans jazz band playing, then scattering, as Katrina bears down on the city (third movement); a languid, humid afternoon on the Wannsee, Berlin’s great lake (fourth movement).

And this has what to do with techno? Not much, other than the hardware. Bates’ musical (as opposed to sound-effects) applications of electronica in this score are rhythmic and spatial. They are applied sparingly, and are almost always subsidiary to orchestral sound. The closest encounter between orchestra and electronica occurs as violins play portamento slides off a trip-hop (slowed-down hip-hop) beat, producing a horizontal, dipping rhythm akin to the "fatback" beat of 1960s rhythm and blues (in Wilson Pickett’s "Mustang Sally," for example). Curiously, this is in the Wannsee movement, not the New Orleans one, whose jazz band plays more metrically.

Bates inserts recorded natural sounds (glaciers breaking up, water lapping) much like other composers, from Respighi to Rautavaara; and like his predecessors, he doesn’t integrate them into the musical argument. Their effect is like that of images flashing in a slide show.

"Liquid Interface" makes its representations vividly – and rather tersely, since so much is represented. It’s tempting to describe the piece as "cinematic," although much of it is too aurally involving to accompany images without getting in their way.

In most of this orchestration, the higher the volume, the longer the notes (lots of whole notes for strings), which results in mostly unhurried tempos. The busy bits, orchestral and electronic, skitter rhythmically and spray tone color. The only big, loud, dense sounds are crashing-ice and thunder-and-wind effects.

The piece struck me as cautious (or judicious, if you prefer), as if the composer weren't yet sure how much, and what kind of, electronica an orchestration, and an orchestra, and a concert hall, can handle. Conductor Leonard Slatkin also seemed to concentrate on details of voicing, balance and articulation. With the grand scheme (if any) left unattended, the piece sounds more angular and episodic, less flowing or surging, than one would expect of water music.

Four works into his electro-orchestral endeavor, the 30-year-old composer is still getting the feel of an unfamiliar and still ungainly tool. Unbridled imagination and unchecked energy in conception, and spontaneity in performance, may be too much to ask for at this stage.

"Scherzo liquido," the second and least specifically representational movement, may have a future apart from "Liquid Interface." It’s as genuinely playful as the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s "Midsummer Night’s Dream" music, and it engages orchestral musicians – Slatkin and the NSO players visibly and audibly perked up when it came around. With some tweaking at the end, it could stand alone, and could become a frequently programmed miniature.

* * *

And then the Mendelssohn: Janine Jansen, the Dutch violinist – an eyeful, you'll notice – making debuts with a number of American orchestras (New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, as well as the NSO) this season after accumulating laurels in Europe, gave this overridden warhorse of violin concertos a treatment that could be described as probing or inquisitive. Or, just as easily, as indulgent.

Producing a smallish tone and (usually) tightly focused pitch on the "Barrere" Stradivarius (1727), Jansen caressed phrases and lingered over expressive details. While brilliant when brilliance was called for, she was most compelling in quiet and quicksilver passages, the softest of which were barely audible 15 feet away.

She’s masterful at the musical stage whisper. One wonders, though, how successfully she’ll employ it as a first-string virtuoso performing with major orchestras in big halls. In this performance, Slatkin reined in orchestral tutti, but the band still sounded like a freight train bearing down on a songbird.

* * *

The program concluded with Tchaikovsky’s "Pathètique" Symphony. Don’t like it, never have, never will, left early.