Seattle Symphony Premieres Bates Cello Concerto

Composer Mason Bates, conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, and cellist Joshua Roman take a break during rehearsals of Bates' Cello Concerto.  (Photos courtesy of Seattle Symphony)
Composer Mason Bates, conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, and cellist Joshua Roman in Seattle for Bates’ Cello Concerto.
(Photos courtesy of Seattle Symphony)
By Philippa Kiraly

SEATTLE — The storms that hit Washington State in early December luckily did not take out the electricity at Benaroya Hall, where the Seattle Symphony gave the world premiere of Mason Bates’ Cello Concerto on Dec. 11 with soloist Joshua Roman under Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. In any case, there was plenty of electricity on stage.

We are told over and over that classical music performances are filled with gray-haired audiences and the young don’t attend much, yet this concert was notable in that all three of the prominent protagonists are younger than almost everyone in the orchestra. And all three are pied pipers for younger listeners who are fascinated with what they do, how they do it, and who they are. Bates is the oldest at 37, Roman is 30, and Gražinytė-Tyla is 28.

Conductor, composer and soloist during a rehearsal.
Conductor, composer and soloist during a rehearsal.

The Juilliard-trained Bates, who shares the post of composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Anna Clyne, has been making a name for himself as a composer both of classical music and electronic music, able to marry the two so that neither seems out of place with the other. Championed by such veteran conductors as Michael Tilson Thomas, Riccardo Muti, and Leonard Slatkin, Bates’ music is performed by major orchestras from San Francisco and Detroit to Chicago, London, and Sydney. At the same time, he is a well-established DJ known as Masonic, and here he doesn’t just spin electronic music. It’s jazz, techno, triphop, dance, and improvisation, including live classical and jazz musicians and, in his hybrid presentations called Musical Soul, visuals as well.

In his Cello Concerto — co-commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, Columbus Symphony (to be performed Jan. 30-31, 2015), and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra — classical lyricism and melody combine fluidly with blues, jazz elements, and techno rhythms that come straight from the 21st-century electronic club scene. Bates doesn’t use electronics here; instead, with a standard symphony orchestra, he has included a large array of percussion instruments, many of them keyboards, from celesta and piano to vibraphone, xylophone, and marimba to kalimba (a wooden board with attached staggered metal tines played with thumbs), plus a wide variety of cymbals and drums.

The format is conventional concerto structure: three movements titled in Italian, English and French: Con moto-Grazioso-Con moto, Serene, and Léger. The solo part is a busy one, often sailing serenely above the orchestra’s agitated role yet always a part of it. The first movement starts out with startling, great swells that die away quickly before it changes character to a gentler form. The cello has a lyrical melodic line seemingly unconscious of the restless activity going on around it.

The Seattle Symphony in Benaroya Hall, its home since 1998.
The Seattle Symphony in Benaroya Hall, its home since 1998.

While different sections of the orchestra play with a techno beat, it’s not obtrusive and doesn’t have time to become repetitive before another group of instruments takes it up. Meanwhile, everyone else is playing a tapestry of colors, punctuated with sudden short swoops or burps that are nevertheless shaped. None of this is overly loud, and it was always easy to hear the cello part, which gets much busier.

Different percussion instruments color the different movements, the second with xylophone and cowbells while the solo cellist uses quiet long bows that bounce gently. Throughout the concerto, Bates adds small duets and trios with the cello and other principal players over orchestral accompaniment. One of the loveliest matches principal cello with solo cello and the flute; another pairs the cello with piccolo comments.

The last and longest movement starts jiggy and carefree, almost Pink Panther-ish in fleeting moments. At another, it hints of Bernstein in the syncopations and jazzy feel, but with the techno beat underneath and accented harrumphs and snorts at intervals from the orchestra. It’s rousing, ebullient fun, full of vitality. The cello never stops, at one point requiring the use of a plectra, and it gets wilder and wilder towards the end.

Roman has had a close connection with Bates for some years, and the two think alike about fusing different types of music into a new and compelling style. He is also a fine cellist whose expressive performance here sang richly without scratches or digging, his excellent technique making it all look easy. Bates has composed an accessible, cheerful, substantive work, with a great role for the cello. It seems likely to become a welcome addition to the cello concerto literature.

Chicago Symphony composers-in-residence Anna Clyne and Bates.
Chicago Symphony composers-in-residence Anna Clyne and Bates.

The question arises: When a cutting edge new work is to be performed, how does the conductor get inside the music and plumb its depths before hearing it live? Roman mentioned in a radio program the previous night that, though conductor and composer had never worked together before, he had played the cello part with a piano reduction of the orchestral part, and Gražinytė-Tyla had that to work from.

Be that as it may, with only two orchestra rehearsals and despite Bates making changes until the last rehearsal, Gražinytė-Tyla had a sure grip on the work and so did the orchestra. A dynamic young conductor, she led with understanding, her clear beat and direction bringing out color, shape, and detail. She had a fine ability to balance and draw singing pianissimos as well as plentiful fireworks from the responsive musicians. The audience responded with cheers and a standing ovation for soloist, composer, and orchestra.

Gražinytė-Tyla gave the same clear direction to the program’s other works: Prokofiev’s Suite from Lieutenant Kije, in which she brought out its quirkiness and drama, and the hushed romanticism of selections from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty.

Philippa Kiraly has been a freelance classical music critic since 1980. She wrote for the Akron Beacon Journal, then the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its print demise, and now for The Seattle TimesCity Arts, and a blog, The Sun Break.