San Francisco Symphony’s Beethoven and Bates Festival


On Saturday January 18, 2014, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony in their second concert in a series of two programs of music by Oakland-based composer Mason Bates paired with music by Ludwig van Beethoven. This series is part of the symphony’s ongoing efforts to create a balance between tradition and innovation in the ways we experience classical music. The pairing of both familiar and rarely heard works by Beethoven with a recent Bates work for orchestra showcased the symphony’s dedication to mixing the old with the new. It also places new American music alongside that of Beethoven’s time-honored genius, lending the performance of contemporary works as part of the standard repertoire ever more acceptance.

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, soloists, and chorus perform Beethoven's Mass in C (photo credit: Kristen Loken)

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, soloists, and chorus perform Beethoven’s Mass in C (photo credit: Kristen Loken)

The concert featured Bates’ Liquid Interface alongside Beethoven’s great Mass in C (Op. 86). Beethoven’s rarely heard overture to King Stephen (Op. 117, composed in 1812) began the evening. The King Stephen overture is part of the incidental music Beethoven was commissioned to write for two dramas performed at the opening of the new Hungarian Theater of Pest, which would become part of Budapest in 1872. The unusual (for the time) use of a series of unison descending fourths to open the overture foreshadowed this concert’s emphasis on new and innovative music.

After a brief pause to reset the stage, the orchestra and composer (on stage in the percussion section controlling the electronica elements) took the stage for the San Francisco Symphony’s first performances of Bates’ 2007 work Liquid Interface. The piece, which Bates considers his first symphony, is scored for a large orchestra including piano and lots of mallet percussion, plus some unusual additions including two harmonicas (in different keys), glass harmonica, a washboard (with spoon), and a wind machine. Bates uses each of these to create further depth of texture and sound throughout the composition. These textures were especially appealing in the instances of Adams-like post-minimalist imitation between the harmonicas, piano, mallet percussion, and upper winds.

Composer Mason Bates with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (photo credit: Kristen Loken)

Composer Mason Bates with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (photo credit: Kristen Loken)

Liquid Interface is divided into two major sections, each of which is further split into two smaller movements. The first movement, Glaciers Calving, is a spacious study of the sounds a glacier makes as it falls apart into smaller chunks at its terminal moraine. Bates generates these sounds both from the orchestra and in recorded electronic format controlled by the composer at his laptop and drumpad in the percussion section. This movement slowly climbs in register until it “calves” into a Beethoven-esque Scherzo Liquido.

The second section begins with Crescent City, an impressionist tapestry of seventh harmonies blended into New Orleans inspired jazz from both the orchestra and the electronica samples. The mellow jazz sound doesn’t last long though, as it slowly grows into a hurricane (complete with wind machine!). The final section, On the Wannsee, was inspired by the “greenhouse paradise” of a lakeside spring. The movement feels like a return home, and I caught a hint of what sounded like Bates paraphrasing (preeminently) the opening of his own 2009 work for solo piano White Lies For Lomax to great effect.

In the program notes, Bates states that Liquid Interface was inspired by water. Specifically, water in its solid form (ice) and how one thing changes into another. In four movements, the audience is taken from a freezing expanse of glaciers to a tropical lakeside by way of Hurricanes. Listening to Liquid Interface is a wonderful auditory journey; Bates was able to take the organic sounds made by glaciers melting and turn them into an entire soundscape of ambient ice noises and beats using the same range of sound qualities.

Bates lists Beethoven’s 9th Symphony among the many inspirations for his innovative mixture of traditional symphonic writing and electronica. He says that all three of his recent works for orchestra (The B-sides, Alternative Energy, and Liquid Interface) are “running with the programmatic idea that you could say begins with Beethoven’s Ninth. Liquid Interface provided a platform in which I could attempt a narrative symphonic approach on a large scale.” And Liquid Interface does indeed narrate the life of water as it morphs from ice into liquid. The narrative quality is clear without taking over. While the piece is clearly a journey, it never once falls off the path on its way to the end.

Beethoven’s Mass in C filled The second half of the concert. Thomas led soloists soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, tenor William Burden, and bass-baritone Shenyang, along with the orchestra and the Symphony Chorus, directed by Ragnar Bohlin, through a rousing performance. The Gloria was especially well done, showcasing a wide range of colors both from the soloists and the chorus. The chorus is a local favorite, and the audience showed their support with a roaring ovation.