Bates, Clyne bringing fresh vibe to CSO's new music series

Mason Bates
Chicago Tribune

By John von Rhein

Their personalities could not be less alike. He's talkative and outgoing, a hip, freewheeling musician who's perfectly at home whether he's talking Boulez or playing DJ in a San Francisco rock club. She's shy and serious, speaks in a soft British accent and is known around Symphony Center for the colorful knit caps she's given to wearing.

Riccardo Muti chose Mason Bates and Anna Clyne as the current Chicago Symphony Orchestra resident composers because both are, in his view, gifted young composers whose works breathe an accessibility and vitality all their own. Just as important, they are in synch with the eclectic spirit of contemporary classical music.

Each composer has written a new piece on commission from the CSO that is to receive its world premiere as part of the season's final MusicNOW concert Monday night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

Bates' opus is "Stereo is King," for three percussionists and electronics. Clyne's work is "Spangled Unicorn," for a 10-member brass ensemble and optional electronic tape. They will share the program with scores by Kaija Saariaho ("Graal Theatre," a concerto for violin and string ensemble, with CSO assistant concertmaster Yuan-Qing Yu as soloist) and Nathan Davis ("Like Sweet Bells Jangled"). Pablo Heras-Casado will conduct.

Both Bates and Clyne tailored their pieces to the particular musical personalities of the CSO members who will be performing their music – in the case of "Stereo is King," CSO percussion virtuosa Cynthia Yeh.

"Cynthia is an amazing player, just so musical in addition to being so precise," says Bates. Per the title, "the piece is a lot of back and forth across the stage between Cynthia, who's playing marimba most of the time, a 'shadow' percussionist playing a set of Thai gongs and a third player who supports them.

"One of the reasons I wanted to compose the piece, in addition to writing for Cynthia, was that I have never really approached the kind of out-of-tune world you can get in percussion. You can really leave the world of notes behind and focus more on textures. That was a challenge for me to write."

Clyne drew her inspiration for "Spangled Unicorn" from the big sound and style of the CSO's fabled brass choir, whose members she has gotten to know well during the six months she has been attending rehearsals and concerts at Orchestra Hall.

"Mason and I are lucky that for the MusicNOW commissions we were able to choose our instrumentation," the composer explains. "With this legendary brass section, it made absolute sense to give it a shot. I've met with the musicians just to make sure everything is playable, so they have been an integral part of the (compositional) process."

Bates' music is literally all over the map. On Sunday, his recent orchestral work "Mothership" will be streamed over the Web in a live performance by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra 2011 from the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Muti is to conduct the Chicago premiere of Bates' "The B-Sides, Five Pieces for Orchestra and Electronica," at subscription programs in May. He and Clyne also are working on new CSO-commissioned works to be premiered here in February and which Muti and the orchestra plan to take on a winter tour to California.