Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, visiting conductor Pablo Heras-Casado led the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in the world premiere of the most recent work to be composed by Mason Bates on an SFS commission. As has been regularly the case, Bates was on hand to perform the “electronica” part of his score, which seemed to amount to the rather intricate control of the interweaving of sampled sounds within the instrumental texture. Those sounds all arose from the processing of recordings of a period instrument ensemble, and this provided the premise behind the music.
The title of his new composition is “Auditorium;” and the premise is that any performing space reverberates not only with the sounds produced by the performers on the stage but also with the “ghost” sounds of past performances. As a result Bates has described his piece as “a work for two orchestras – one live, one dead.” The latter is the period instrument ensemble that provides the source for his electronica. The source recordings were made at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) with Cory Jamason leading his Conservatory Baroque Ensemble, which he co-directs with his SFCM colleague Elisabeth Reed. The group for this occasion consisted of fifteen strings, historical flute, oboe, bassoon, horn, and trumpet, and a continuo of harpsichord and theorbo.
The music began with a joke of sorts. Somewhat in the spirit of Edgard Varèse’s “Tuning Up,” the oboe (Eugene Izotov) sounded the 440 Hz A natural reference pitch, and the other SFS musicians aligned themselves to that frequency. However, the Conservatory Baroque Ensemble generally uses 415 Hz for their reference pitch, resulting in an A that is almost exactly an equal-tempered semitone lower than the 440 Hz A sounded by Izotov. Thus, from the very beginning, there was a “conflict” with the “echo from the past” arising from a wave of superimposed semitones (basically a tone cluster distributed across a large number of instruments).
As the piece progressed, the “sorting out” of present and past became clearer, thanks primarily to Bates judicious sense of when to engage his electronica and with how much emphasis. This was not a call-and-response technique. Rather, it was a sort of musical interlude during which the SFS musicians somewhat blithely bopped along to Bates’ casual rhythms only to be interrupted by occasional “hauntings” from the instruments of the past, often processed to the extent that their original forms were no longer recognizable. (Over the course of “Auditorium,” only the sound of the harpsichord was easily distinguished as such,)
Taken as a whole the piece lacks the sort of narrative that underlies many of Bates’ past compositions, engaged most powerfully in his “Alternative Energy,” in which the narrative spans the past and projected future of energy sources. “Auditorium” is more of an abstract meditation; but it succeeds in filling its twenty-minute duration with a journey through a wide variety of sonorities. The listener may not be drawn into what-next suspense as the piece progresses; but it is hard to resist the appeal of the many “sights” encountered along the path of that metaphorical journey.
Bates’ piece was followed (but separated by the intermission) by another confrontation between present and past. This one was written almost 100 years ago by Maurice Ravel. Le Tombeau de Couperin began as a six-movement piano suite, each of whose movements was inspired by one of the formal structures of the eighteenth-century French Baroque (one of whose leading composers was François Couperin). Ravel composed his suite in 1917 and orchestrated four of its movements in 1919.
There is no sense of “haunting” in this composition. If the connotation of “tombeau” is the honoring of Couperin’s memory, then Ravel achieves this goal through his own voice, although his experience driving a truck for the 13th Artillery Regiment of the French Army in World War One may have led to retrospection as a longing for simpler times (not that they really were that simple in the eighteenth century). The real kinship between Le Tombeau de Couperin and “Auditorium,” however, lies in how both of these compositions, separated by a century, journey through a wide range of different sonorities; and, once again, Izotov’s oboe work turned out to be as much a key element in Ravel’s journey as it had been in Bates’. Heras-Casado clearly appreciated the wide variety of hues and shades on Ravel’s instrumental palette, and his approach to Le Tombeau de Couperin more than did justice to the broad diversity of skills among the SFS musicians.
Equally impressive in sonority was his account of the final work on the program, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 70 symphony in E-flat major. This was Shostakovich’s ninth symphony, and there is a clear sense that he was thumbing his nose at the “mantle of greatness” carried by many of the ninth symphonies of the past. More importantly, however, Opus 70 was composed in August of 1945. It thus followed the two symphonies written during the Second World War, each of which carried some heavy emotional baggage. The Communist Party hacks of the Soviet Union probably thought that Shostakovich would demonstrate his loyalty by writing a grand “Victory Symphony” (probably associating the number nine with Ludwig van Beethoven). However, what Shostakovich actually produced was more of a manic outpouring of relief framed in a rhetoric that is predominantly comic.
That rhetoric is again served by a prodigious diversity of instrumental voices. The most comic of these was probably Timothy Higgins’ trombone work in the first movement, during which it seemed like he would never play more than two notes again and again. A broader sense of personality could be found, on the other hand, in the bassoon work of Stephen Paulson, which was quietly introspective in the fourth (Largo) movement and then shook off the blues with a perky introduction to the concluding Allegretto movement. Beyond the solo work, however, Shostakovich goes for the funny bone with a variety of different outbursts of sound throughout the symphony and a climax that suggests that the “victory parade” for the end of the war is being led by a troupe of clowns. (The Soviet authorities would catch up with him shortly after this symphony was given its first performance.)
Rich instrumentation was also on display at the very beginning of the program with Béla Bartók’s 1923 composition that he called simply “Dance Suite.” Since this is a single-movement composition, it is not, strictly speaking, a suite. However, it does tour through a variety of rhythmic sections, each of which could be associated with its own distinctive dance form. These are separated by a recurring Ritornello motif, perhaps allowing the dancers to catch their breaths before going on to the next dance. Also, possibly with a nod to classical ballet, there is a Finale that revisits excerpts from all of the previous dances. Heras-Casado’s account of this music delivered all of the requisite high spirits, once again providing more than ample opportunity for the full diversity of the SFS instrumentalists to strut their stuff with exuberant pride.