Davies Symphony Hall: the coolest place in town last week

Mason Bates
The Examiner

By Rick Marianetti

Yuja Wang's Friday afternoon tweet places her in Marin's Muir Woods, 11 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Maybe the woods provided some inspiration.

The Symphony's program was an inspired work of art in itself: Sibelius' Symphony No. 4 in A minor (1911), Mason Bates' world premier of The B-Sides (2009), and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor (1924).

The Sibelius Symphony sounded like it could have been written anytime in the last 50 years, a film noir sound track for the twentieth century--or the beginning of the twenty first: foreboding, disturbing, despairing, meandering into darkness.

In the fourth movement, a jarringly incongruent glockenspiel sounds like Little Red Riding Hood lost in the bad part of town at three in the morning. At one point, the buzz of a deep, sneering brass note seems to chase the cheery orchestra bells right out of the hall.

Then came Bates' world premier, whose percussion-driven electronica/drum & bass driven B-sides ironically had more in common with Beethoven's triumphant Ninth Symphony than Sibelius' Fourth composed 100 years ago.

In conversation with Michael Tilson Thomas before Saturday's performance, Bates' (aka DJ "Masonic") explained that he liked shifting genres (composing for a live orchestra) because of the "actual sound, of humans together...like a flock of birds in sync."

While Bates said Karlheinz Stockhausen's approach to electronic music was over-controlled, he enjoys electronica, although "sometimes it's nice to go away" and embrace acoustic instrumentation.

The program ended with Prokofiev, and the 22 year-old Yuja Wang showed her growing reputation is definitely not the product of PR hype. Piano Concerto No. 2 is almost as much an athletic as musical performance -- the 5-minute virtuoso cadenza of the first movement; a seemingly endless blizzard of 16th notes of the second; the swirling arpeggios, acciaccaturas, and swings in dynamics of the third; the frantic tirade of chords up and down the keyboard in the fourth... It was as if only the sturdy, persistent structure of the orchestra kept the tornado at the front of the stage from taking the whole house down.

And when it was over, the audience erupted like the home-town crowd, having chronically teetered on the precipice of defeat, like Bobby Thompson's "Shot heard 'round the world."

In another universe, Wang is as famous and respected among her peers as Hannah Montana. For three nights last week, Davies Hall was the coolest place to be in the Bay Area.

Actual publication date was May 26, 2009