Thursday, January 9, 2014

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

After having spent most of the previous two days at the vet's with a sick cat, I spent most of Wednesday at the hospital with a sick human. Nevertheless, I managed to attend last night's concert, first installment of a two-week Beethoven and Mason Bates festival. Who? Mason Bates, 37 this month and residing locally, is one of those rising younger composers who are blessed with a lot of orchestra time. I've heard his work in concert several times before; at first I was not much impressed, but he's been growing on me and apparently becoming a better composer. The work on next week's program is one of the earlier ones of his I heard and wasn't too impressed by, so we'll see if it improves on re-acquaintance.

The biggest compliment I can give Bates' The B-Sides, the five-movement suite that represented him on this week's program, is that it didn't make me wonder what it was doing on the same concert with Beethoven. The orchestration is bright and shimmery, with much wind and percussion overlaying a relatively motionless string base. Repeating motives flash over and run past each other in different instruments. All the movements are different - no trouble telling when the ones that run together change- but it all sounds a lot like John Adams. Many young composers write this way, but Bates shows more assurance, skill, and, at least in his better works, taste than most.

What he's particularly learned to do is restrain the self-performed electronica that he likes to stick in his scores. One of the movements in this suite depicts the Gemini IV space walk by means of playing tapes of the voice recordings of the astronauts and mission control talking. Surprisingly, this does not become intrusive, and it adds the inestimable advantage that the listener doesn't have to guess at what the composer is depicting as the piece goes along. The way the music opens up at the moment Ed White says, "I'm going outside" really adds to the experience of reliving the event, and in a way refreshingly different from the retro-nationalist blare of typical space movie music.

As for Beethoven's part, Sasha Barantschik played the two Romances with requisite sweetness, and MTT wowed the audience with an awesomely fast and punchy Seventh Symphony. The only reason I wasn't blown away is that I've heard him, and those dazzling musicians of his, do exactly the same thing with this piece before.

Lots and lots of younger people - late 20s and 30s, I suspect - at this concert. The ones in the row behind me talked among themselves in the quick and jauntily referential manner that was typical of my friends when we were that age. (We've slowed down a lot since then.) If they came for Mason Bates, good for them, and I think they liked Beethoven too.

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