Recently SFS Media, the division of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) that records and distributes CDs of the ensemble’s concert performances, has been releasing albums that focus on a single composer. This past August that composer was John Adams with a recording that coupled “Absolute Jest” with “Grand Pianola Music.” This was followed in November by an album devoted entirely to Ludwig van Beethoven, featuring Emanuel Ax as soloist in the Opus 37 (third) piano concerto in C minor and the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director) and soloists joining SFS in a performance of the Opus 86 setting of the Mass text in C major. All performances were conducted by SFS Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT).
The most recent release, which took place almost two weeks ago, followed the same plan, this time with the youngest composer to have his music recorded by SFS Media. That composer is Mason Bates, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area; and the title of the album is simply Mason Bates: Works for Orchestra. Three works, each a suite of either four or five movements, are included, composed, respectively, in 2007 (Liquid Interface), 2009 (The B-Sides), and 2011 (Alternative Energy). The first two of these were recorded in Davies Symphony Hall in January of 2014, ironically (in light of the most recent previous release) as part of a two-week Beethoven and Bates Festival. Alternative Energy was recorded in concerts at the beginning of the following season in September of 2014. Once again, all performances were conducted by MTT.
Of these three pieces, only The B-Sides was commissioned by SFS, given its premiere in May of 2009. Liquid Interface was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra, and Alternative Energy was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) during Bates’ tenure as composer-in-residence. Only Alternative Energy has been previously recorded; but that recording, also made during concert performances, was on the CSO-Resound label, which is only available through digital download. Almost immediately after the Chicago premiere performances, CSO took the piece to Davies Symphony Hall, which it visited as part of the SFS Centennial Season.
The least satisfying of these works is probably The B-Sides. Apparently MTT approached Bates with the idea of writing a “response” to the set of five pieces for orchestra that Arnold Schoenberg had composed in 1909 and published as his Opus 16. The result was the only suite in five movements on this album (possibly because Bates seems comfortable with the architecture of the four-movement symphony), carrying a title recalling the second-rate flip sides of old pop singles. MTT was probably looking for something that would shock listeners in 2009 the way that Schoenberg’s Opus 16 had shocked listeners 100 years earlier, but the primary shock that Bates created involved invoking the contemporary club culture scene in a relatively stuffy concert hall, a scene that the audience was unlikely to find particularly disquieting.
On the other hand Bates is much better off when he sets his own agenda, and that agenda tends to explore the changing relationship between man and his environment. As might be guessed, Liquid Interface is about water; and, through Bates’ used of electronica, the instrumental sonorities are introduced through the natural sounds of an iceberg calving. As this piece develops, it is easy to appreciate Bates’ craft in blending electronic and instrumental sonorities as each of the four movements of the suite illustrates different aspects of how man has interfered with the natural cycles though which our planet provides itself with life-supporting water.
Following up on Bates’ interest in symphonic architecture, he described his Alternative Energy suite as an “energy symphony.” This piece is distinguished by having a narrative arc that unfolds over the course of more than three centuries. It begins with Henry Ford on his family farm in 1896, tinkering around (with several droll sound effects) to find a way to build an internal combustion engine. The narrative then jumps ahead to the immediate present of the Chicago in which Bates had his residency. He visited FermiLab to capture the sounds of high-energy research, which turned out to be just another form of tinkering involving far bigger tools. This is followed by advancing a century to a China in which the land no longer supports life and all that remain are a few fragments of the folk music of earlier generations. The final movement advances another hundred years to Iceland, which, thanks to climate change, has become a rainforest. However, as was the case China, the folk music of a distant past still remains.
This makes for a very dark cautionary tale, but Bates does not try to underscore the darkness. His rhetoric is, for the most part, optimistic Perhaps he is taking a positive stance toward the possibility that the earth will continue to sustain itself, even if the human race is no longer part of the overall life cycle. Whatever his agenda may have been in composing this music, the results are highly engaging. This new release definitely provides an excellent opportunity to get to know what Bates is capable of doing as a composer, and MTT has done much in his work with SFS to serve as Bates’ advocate.