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Composer Mason Bates' new concerto takes flight in Nashville

Mason Bates
Nashville Scene

By John Pitcher

Primal Sounds

Don't call Mason Bates a classical dinosaur.

A 36-year-old California-based composer, Bates has spent much of his career on the cutting edge of contemporary music. His sparkling, effervescent works often fuse traditional acoustic music with the sounds of techno pop. In fact, he's as likely to spin records onstage as conduct ensembles.

Nashvillians will get to experience Bates' innovative music this weekend, when Giancarlo Guerrero leads the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in a performance of the composer's new Violin Concerto. Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers premiered the concerto in Pittsburgh in December. She'll give the work its second-ever performance this weekend at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

Speaking of dinosaurs, Bates' new concerto is at least tangentially related to one. He gave the work's first movement the tongue-twisting title "Archaeopteryx," the scientific name of a feathered animal from the late Jurassic. That creature was a hybrid that linked dinosaurs with modern-day birds. The beast is a great metaphor for Bates' music, which features both classical and pop DNA. For Bates, it's also a symbol of Anne Akiko Meyers' musical style.

"I wanted to explore Anne's musical personality, and archaeopteryx gave me an idea of how to do it," says Bates, on the phone from his home in Oakland, Calif. "She can play violin with a primal energy that's like a dinosaur, but she can also send notes flying like a bird over the orchestra."

Meyers first encountered Bates, a composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, when she hired him to compose cadenzas for the Beethoven Violin Concerto. She also heard him in a San Francisco club, where he was spinning records with a contemporary music ensemble. "I loved his dynamic approach to music," says Meyers, speaking from her home in Austin. "I immediately wondered how he could translate his DJ style into symphonic music."

Initially, Meyers figured Bates would compose an electronic work, a "Concerto for Violin, Orchestra and Turntable." But Bates decided to go unplugged. "Mason explained that he didn't need electronics to write this concerto," says Meyers. "As far as he's concerned, the symphony orchestra is the world's biggest and greatest synthesizer."

Lasting about 25 minutes, Bates' concerto is arranged in three movements played without pause. The first movement, named for the aforementioned feathered reptile, begins with frenetic-sounding music (the dinosaur) that eventually evolves into a ravishingly beautiful melody (the bird).

The second movement, "Lakebed Memories," explores this gorgeous tune in a jazzy context. In the finale, called "The Rise of the Birds," the notes take flight in a flurry of perpetual motion patterns.

Nashville composer Kyle Baker, a co-founder of the city's annual Soundcrawl contemporary music and arts festival, thinks Bates made a wise decision in going acoustic. "Mixing electronic and symphonic music often works better in theory than in the real world," he says. "Still, I think we're going to be hearing more fusion in the future."

Perhaps, but old things still have their virtues. For instance, Meyers will be performing the concerto on her Guarneri del Gesù violin, built in 1741. "I love the fact that Mason's new music will take flight on a violin that's nearly 300 years old," she says.