by Linda Holt
Is Mason Bates the man who can save serious (aka “classical”) music? And can serious music be fun?
The answer to both questions may be yes to judge by recent performances of the young American composer’s work by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The orchestra brought Bates’s lively score, Alternative Energy, to life last year, with the composer as performer (see review by Linda Holt April 17, 2017, at broadstreetreview.com).
On Nov. 9, 2018, Bates was in the audience, rather than on the stage, for a performance of Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, his tribute to the magic realism of Jorge Luis Borges. The concert was held in Verizon Hall of the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, Pa., and later repeated in New York City.
The 11-movement suite gains its inspiration from Borges’s 1957 collection of more than a hundred imaginary beasts. Performances Nov. 8, 9, and 10 are the work’s Philadelphia premier.
Everything about this work is fresh and exciting, starting like a pop of champagne with a sparkling flute (Patrick Williams) and the chatter of unconventional percussion instruments. Something lively is always happening throughout the 30 continuous minutes of this work, its movements named for imaginary creatures such as the Gryphon, Zaratan, and Madrugada.
Bates takes a playful, but democratic approach to highlighting the gifts of the orchestra’s musicians. Instead of always tapping the orchestra’s excellent concertmaster, David Kim, for every violin solo, Bates appears to have chosen violinists at random throughout the orchestra to do the honors. In addition, there is a section in which two solo violinists play off-stage (Julia Li from the first violin section was offstage on the violin side while Amy Oshiro of the second violin section played offstage on the bass side, both deserving to be heard more often in solo capacity), causing audience members to crane their necks to see the source of these disembodied melodies.
The work captures and engages the listener’s attention throughout with its variety and creative use of instrumentation, such as the silvery Flex-A-Tone, a unique instrument that creates a wave of eerie, saw-like sounds through varied pitches. Yet, traditional classical instruments also were showcased. The light-hearted virtuosity of clarinetists Ricardo Morales and Sam Caviezel in the “Nymphs” section was a delight to hear, while the shimmering tone painting in “Midnight,” with the string section rising and falling like a single glissando, created a mood far distant from the world of tam-tams, ratchets, and hi-hats in other parts of the score.
The work ended by deliberately collapsing in on itself. Great blocks of sound, chiseled with grinding discords, crashed into an exciting conclusion begging for the inevitable explosion of applause.
My only complaint was the difficulty in figuring out which section was playing at any given moment. Perhaps overhead titles, as used in opera performances, or a full-page in the Playbill, with the movement names in bold, and the approximate times for each, could serve as a real-time guide to this captivating zoological romp.
Sounds of the sea
Joyce DiDonato, one of the most celebrated mezzo-sopranos of our time, appeared after intermission in a performance of Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer (Poem of Love and the Sea). The singer wore a strapless teal gown, all a-glitter, which, with her commanding stage presence, gave her the aura of an aquatic goddess or mermaid.
Consisting of two poems for mezzo and orchestra separated by an interlude, Chausson’s work is a midpoint between stormy European tributes to love and the sea. Composed in 1893, it falls between Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859), which it is often compared to, and Debussy’s La Mer (1905), which the orchestra played Oct. 12. My ears are still pleasurably ringing from a performance of Tristan I attended this September with Philippe Jordan conducting the National Opera of Paris and Martina Serafin as Isolde.
Mason Bates, composer (Photo by Ryan Schude).
Although these other musical depictions of tempestuous seas were remarkable in their own ways, Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation brought out a unique depth of turbulence within the orchestra. This emotional depth and sweeping vision required a singer of tremendous self-confidence, tenacity, and control to rise and fall with the waves of passion, and DiDonato brought these qualities in abundance. If there was one word I could use to describe her performance, it would be “conviction.” Without it, the heart-felt lyrics of Maurice Bouchor would fall flat as a sand dollar. The work contained many instrumental delights, including some incandescent moments by cellist Priscilla Lee.
The work opens with the poem, “Water Flower,” a tender song of loveliness and loss, and after an orchestral interlude, concludes with the mournful “The Death of Love.” DiDonato’s beautiful voice caressed the French text, proving she is not only a shining light on the great opera stages of the world, but an insightful artist even alone, stationary, and virtually immobile.
The concert opened with a lovely rendition of Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, emphasizing some of its whisper-soft passages, and concluded with Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, four impressions of flowing water. Philippe Tondre performed brilliantly as guest principal oboe throughout the program, and other memorable soloists, too numerous to mention here, contributed substantively to a satisfying concert with an aquatic theme.