Bounding Across Styles, Bates Piano Concerto Honors Era Of Virtuoso

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Daniil Trifonov performed Mason Bates’ Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. (Photos by Pete Cecchia)

PHILADELPHIA — Success for Mason Bates’ Piano Concerto wasn’t a possibility at its Jan. 14 premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra, but an inevitability.

Co-commissioned by the orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Philadelphia music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and written for pianist Daniil Trifonov, the concerto faced its historic predecessors (Rachmaninoff included) with fire-breathing, head-on audacity. Bates’ work didn’t imitate its forebears so much as it capitalized on the audience’s knowledge of such classics and turned symphonic manners on their head — as well as on their sides — often in witty succession. The piece was also compellingly dense and loud. Not only did the Kimmel Center audience stand, cheer and love it immediately, but the concerto also sat perfectly well in a program followed by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

Written in three movements with references to traditional concerto structure, Bates’ new work ran for 25 continuous minutes (no between-movement pauses), showing how his transformation from an electronic-based composer to a full-blown orchestral master would seem to be complete. Also evident, though, were longtime Bates hallmarks. Besides knowing how to write for a pianist of extreme virtuosity, the 44-year-old composer keeps even his most terse melodic ideas from wearing thin, thanks to framing them in an optimum harmonic environment. Nobody of his generation can build a movement so effectively. Most important, he knows when to stop. Nonetheless, as much as I was engaged by the concerto, I prefer almost every other Bates piece over this one. His sense of competition with the Romantic pianistic past represented by Trifonov seemed overshadowed by matters of deeper personal importance to the composer, even in places where the concerto seemed obliged to confess its soul.

Originally, Bates came into the classical world from deejay culture, with rhythmic tracks that gave his music a confident propulsion and streetwise grit. Many electronic coloristic possibilities, hair-pin contrasts, and shapes of musical gestures that I most love in his music seem to have been born of that world. His use of percussion is particularly eclectic: The first movement of his Cello Concerto seems to be two different pieces — one with Asian-influenced percussion — but with everything artfully meshed together with great clarity of thought.

Now Bates seems to be in a period, suggested by his 2018 work Resurrexit that employed boisterous movie-music language to celebrate Easter, where he employs and transforms orchestral cliches much like the reckless final movement of the Mahler Symphony No. 7. Nothing wrong with that in a piece or two. And few current composers do it so cleverly. But a composer of Bates’ caliber has more individualistic things to do.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, left, salutes composer Mason Bates and pianist Daniil Trifonov after the premiere of Bates’ Piano Concerto.

The Piano Concerto’s program notes reveal a time-travel element, the first movement referring to the Renaissance, the second to the brooding pianistic heroes of the 19th century, and the third with all manner of 21st-century elements. Though Bates writes that he had the transparent vocal writing of madrigals in his ears, what came out in the first movement was something more earthy, with string instruments strummed rather than bowed at times, and rhythms suggesting the Italianate dances of the era. In the second movement, the kind of grave piano chords associated with Romantic concertos were even more bass-heavy here, though suggesting angst more than actually conveying it. So many of these features — percussion included — seemed to be surface decoration. The syncopation and velocity in the 21st-century movement shamelessly played to the gallery. Is this a criticism? No, because that showpiece quality was balanced by Bates’ dazzling, alternative logic in the witty, unpredictable transitions between movements.

Trifonov’s role in the concerto’s success can’t be minimized. He supplied fireworks during the cadenzas, but his primary gifts to the concerto were clarity both in terms of what the notes are and what an intense presence they could be. Keep in mind that Trifonov has written his own piano concerto, and whatever you think of his piece (I like it very much), that experience alone is bound to have aided the considerable cognitive clarity he brought to Bates. It’s often joked that Trifonov’s physical appearance often resembles that of the composers he plays (Liszt, Chopin, etc). With everybody behind masks, that’s possible with Bates as well.

Meanwhile, Nézet-Séguin found any number of points in common between Bates and Scheherazade. Like Bates, Rimsky’s endings can be elongated goodbyes, grabbing one more opportunity for thematic transformation. Just as Bates reframed previous eras of music, Scheherazade was played not as a depiction of her exotic thousand-and-one tales but as a depiction of her telling the tales. To that end, harpist Elizabeth Hainen was positioned front and center in the orchestra. Though few harpists can acquit themselves with such panache, her best moments were accompanying tales told by the incidental solos, very much like a bard’s lyre, played with a tempo flexibility approximating stylized speech.

So often, Scheherazade performances have only two levels — the recurring violin solos and the rest. But Nézet-Séguin clearly delineated several levels, including the central figure of Scheherazade, the stories themselves, and places where, as some commentators have put it, Rimsky had ideas of his own. Solos by concertmaster David Kim had an added sense of inflection and true sense of narrative from one statement to the next. In moments suggesting Arabian seas, the Philadelphia Orchestra cellos undulated in ways that were both descriptive and sexy. Like his long-ago predecessor Leopold Stokowski, Nézet-Séguin brought detailed commitment, creating a spellbinding performance of a piece that has had so much mileage over the years that you often wonder if its spellbinding days are over. Not yet. Not in Philadelphia.

Recording equipment was everywhere in the concert, and the program will be available on the orchestra’s Digital Stage series April 27–May 4. For more information, go here.

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