Kennedy Center’s New Music Series Is Bates’ Jukebox

Mason Bates, the first Kennedy Center composer-in-residence, is hosting a series of “KC Jukebox” concerts. (Photo by Scott Suchman)
Mason Bates, the first Kennedy Center composer in residence, is hosting a series of “KC Jukebox” concerts.
(Photo by Scott Suchman)
By Charles T. Downey

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The nation’s capital is not exactly a hotbed for contemporary music. A few series and ensembles devoted to new music have small but loyal followings, but others struggle to find an audience. The Kennedy Center regularly hosts some performances of new works. But as the venue that is arguably the city’s classical music flagship, is certainly not known for contemporary specialization.

KC Jukebox Poster 350Deborah F. Rutter, who left the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association to take the reins at the Kennedy Center in 2014, aimed to change that. Some of her initiatives so far were popular but a little silly, like building a large skateboard park in front of the building’s main entrance as part of a skateboard-themed festival last September. In a more serious gesture, she appointed Mason Bates, the darling of classical-electronics hybrids, as the Kennedy Center’s first-ever composer in residence.

For the first of his three seasons in that capacity, Bates is hosting a series of KC Jukebox concerts. After the first installment last November, devoted to ambient music, Bates presented the second on Feb. 22. The title Of Land and Sea was little more than an excuse to group together five pieces with aquatic themes or, a bit of a stretch, from different lands. The musicians, largely drawn from the National Symphony Orchestra, gave mostly strong performances even though they had just returned from a strenuous European tour.

The strongest work on the program was almost the oldest, Ku-Ka-Ilimoku, composed by Christopher Rouse in 1978 for the Syracuse Symphony Percussion Ensemble. Rouse described the piece as a war dance in honor of a vicious Hawaiian god, and he used traditional orchestral percussion instruments to mimic the sounds of Hawaiian instruments. The four percussionists, John Spirtas, Greg Akagi, Doug Wallace, and Bill Richards, captured the pulsating savagery of the piece. The composer’s earlier Ogoun Badagris, from 1976, felt like a first draft of similar ideas that were slightly less effective, imitating Voodoo drumming in honor of a violent Haitian god.

Christopher Rouse's 'Ku-Ka-Ilimoku' made a strong impression.
Christopher Rouse’s ‘Ku-Ka-Ilimoku’ made a strong impression.

Everything else on the program felt tame by comparison to the Rouse in general. Selections from Gabriela Lena Frank’s Milagros for string quartet had some pleasing colors, evoking the sounds of instruments and dances from Peru. Seven Seascapes by Kevin Puts, composed for the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival in 2013, was a banal exploration of sounds stereotypically associated with the ocean, down to the flute solo trotted out for the seabird. Each movement was inspired by a literary quotation, with one or two musical ideas repeated a few times for each one.

Electronics featured in only two pieces. One was At the Still Point, by John Luther Adams, which was apparently played over the loudspeaker as the audience entered, although that was not especially clear. Red River, the musical contribution of Bates himself to the evening (for clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and piano), also fell short. It is controlling enough when composers impose metronome markings on their scores, but at least performers can ignore them. Bates, by providing an electronic beat track to some of the movements, straightjackets his performers, and one could hear the musicians chafing at the bit, wanting to stretch and pull the music but unable to do so. The jazzy qualities of the “”Hoover Slates Vegas” section, as the journey of the Colorado River (formerly the Red River) nears its end, were sadly square.

The Kennedy Center's Theater Lab. (Alain Jaramillo)
The Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab. (Alain Jaramillo)

At its heart, the programming was solidly contemporary and American. The extra-musical trappings of these KC Jukebox concerts felt like little more than bells and whistles. Colored lighting and smoke machines helped disguise the plainness of the Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab. Those with limited powers of concentration had video to watch; minimal program notes, on video, were force-fed for each work, which helped somewhat to cover painfully long set-up transitions between pieces.

The constant trickling of recorded water sounds was an unpleasant reminder that no intermission was given for a bathroom break. After the concert the audience proceeded to the gallery outside, now illuminated by projectors beaming a snowy mountain vista onto the wall. Drinks were on offer for this extended part of the evening, for those who did not mind shouting over the music offered by a guest D.J.

Charles T. Downey is a freelance reviewer for the Washington Post and other publications. He is the moderator of, a Web site on classical music and the arts in Washington, D.C.