The Kennedy Center

Concerto for Violin

About the Work

Mason Bates Composer: Mason Bates
© Thomas May

With the Violin Concerto of Mason Bates, this all-American program extends to music being written in the 21st century. At the same time, Bates's adventurous outlook and interest in expanding the possibilities of the orchestral sound world link him to the American maverick tradition represented by such composers as Charles Ives, whose music concludes the program.

Bates initially became known in the contemporary music world for his unique blend of the orchestra's vast array of natural acoustic colors with DJ-tinged "electronica"-the composer's catch-all term for the palette of digital samplings as well as techno beats from the electronic dance music scene (which are typically controlled from a laptop positioned within the orchestra).

A good example is Liquid Interface, a major orchestral work that originated in the 2006-07 season as a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra. (Leonard Slatkin conducted the NSO in the world premiere at the Kennedy Center on February 22, 2007.) Bates says he considers Liquid Interface, which on one level reflects on the sea and other forms of water, as his First Symphony. The commission provided him with what he describes as "a platform in which I could attempt a narrative symphonic approach on a large scale."

In the decade since then, Bates has earned a status as one of the most encountered American composers. A study of programming trends among 22 major American orchestras in 2014 by the Baltimore Symphony found that Bates was the second most frequently performed living composer after John Adams. Bates's development as an artist shows the benefits of close collaborations and residencies with orchestras across the country. His poetically alluring compositions are, in a sense, the 21st-century answer to what used to be called program music. They conjure fascinating soundscapes: calving Antarctic glaciers, the transmissions from the 1965 Gemini space walk, "the white noise of the Southern summer," or the "static haze" of international communication in the early days of radio. With Mothership, a work commissioned for the YouTube Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas, one of his foremost champions, Bates has helped expand the audience for contemporary classical music via the wide open spaces of the Internet. The beginning of this month brought the world premiere of another major commission by the San Francisco Symphony, Auditorium, and Bates is meanwhile at work on his first large-scale opera: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, to be premiered in 2017 by Santa Fe Opera.

This season Bates began his tenure as the Kennedy Center's first-ever Composer-In- Residence-just months after concluding a five-year residency with the Chicago Symphony under music director Riccardo Muti. What he has discovered so far, he recently remarked, is that "curating the Kennedy Center as a platform and knowing how the institution of the orchestra works" call for skills similar to those needed for composing. "Because it involves so many disciplines and so many wonderful spaces in one building, the Kennedy Center is the perfect platform to think about imaginative ways of experiencing new music." This he has been pursuing through such events as the KC Jukebox series, which explored a century of ambient music-from the "furniture music" of the 1930s to Minimalism and contemporary electronica-in last November's Lounge Regime edition.

"In a way, curating has become a very big part of my musical life," says Bates. "However different it may seem different from composing, there are some similarities. In both composing and curating, you're trying to take an idea from your head and bring it into real life, within spaces that have musicians and audiences. As artists we're trying to push boundaries-whether by using electronic sounds or improvisations-but you have to know how the orchestra works to begin with. And you have to know how these institutions work in order to push them beyond perceived boundaries as well."

In his Violin Concerto, Bates turned to a venerated genre from the tradition and decided to go "unplugged"-to set aside his toolbox of electronica and write exclusively for acoustic instruments, but in a way that is informed by the experience gathered from his previous electro-acoustic compositions. Indeed, the Violin Concerto features a wealth of exotic sounds imaginatively prompted by that background of inventing new sounds electronically. Moreover, the Concerto was loosely inspired by a series of images suggesting a narrative dimension that is often found in Bates's orchestral music: here, the link between dinosaurs and birds-between the ancient archaeopteryx and its later evolution over deep time. Bates notes that while he had no specific model from the repertoire in mind, he wanted to strive for "the idea of a concerto that can explore some of the great musical topics on a scale that is normally reserved only for symphonies. Examples for me would be John Adams's [First] Violin Concerto, the Ligeti Concerto, and also the Dutilleux Cello Concerto."

As a genre, the concerto has a reputation for showcasing the unique qualities of the solo instrument-and performer-being spotlighted. Bates's impetus for the Violin Concerto was the extraordinary virtuoso Anne Akiko Meyers,"whose fiery and soulful playing inspired every note of this piece," according to the composer. Meyers, he says, enabled the original commission to happen with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Since their premiere of the work on December 7, 2012, the Violin Concerto has enjoyed notable success, with performances by almost a dozen orchestras within its brief life to date; Meyers has also recorded the Concerto, with the London Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin (on a release that also includes Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto and a piece by Bates's former teacher John Corigliano).

What specifically in Meyers' style of playing inspired Bates? "I became intrigued by these two poles you find in her work: she is incredibly fiery and virtuosic but can also float a melody, in the most natural musical way. These aspect match her personality. Anne is a very intense woman who is also incredibly generous and soulful. Hence this thematic idea of the dinosaur becoming a bird, which emerged in the piece. Skittish and wildly virtuosic material opens the piece but is offset by ravishing melody. By the end of the work, it really takes flight." Bates adds that he finds it exciting that the Violin Concerto is at last coming to the Kennedy Center "at this more mature stage in its development. Anne has always played it stunningly but has now been living with it for a few years, and I‘ve been able to make some adjustments, fine-tuning the orchestration and balances."

 The prospect of writing for Meyers also spurred Bates to work with purely acoustic forces. "Composers paint with sound, and my sonic palette has been growing rapidly in large-scale symphonies fusing orchestral and electronic sounds," he explains. "But the pops, clicks, and thuds of techno present challenges in a violin concerto: the subtle textures of this 18-inch instrument would be quickly painted over by the powerful colors of such a big palette. So, in order to fully showcase the violin, I stepped back into the acoustic universe-but with my ears still humming with exotic sounds." Bates has provided the following description of the music:

"The search for novel sounds pushed me, surprisingly, into primeval territory, resulting in a concerto filled with ancient animals. First and foremost is the solo violinist, who inhabits two identities: one primal and rhythmic, the other elegant and lyrical. This hybrid musical creature is, in fact, based on a real one. The Archeopteryx [first movement], an animal of the Upper Jurassic famously known as the first dinosaur/bird hybrid, can be heard in the sometimes frenetic, sometimes sweetly singing solo part. The searching melody that underlies the entire work, not heard in full until we are well into the first movement, has in fact been peering at us from behind the orchestral fauna all along.

Unfolding continuously out of the explosive first movement, the middle movement (Lakebed Memories) explores this melody dreamily, conjuring the lakebed in southern Germany where the archaeopteryx fossil was discovered. Eerie, hazy sonorities give way to a kind of underwater epiphany, pushing us airborne into the finale. In this last movement (The Rise of Birds), the soloist stays aloft on a jet stream of notes, inspired equally by Bach inventions and sparkling electronica. The work's final measures transform the soloist fully from dinosaur into bird, with the melody floating high above an orchestra of fluttering textures."