Classical review: Nashville Symphony takes Mason Bates’ new Violin Concerto out for a spin

Mason Bates
Arts Nash

By John Pitcher

You can usually expect orchestras to blow their own horns – not to mention their oboes and piccolos – whenever they present a world-premiere performance. The first rendition of a new piece naturally lends itself to a little hype. But it’s the second or third presentation of a work that really matters. That’s what gives new music legs and a shot at becoming a part of the standard repertoire.

This weekend, the young California-based composer Mason Bates is getting that very opportunity in Nashville. On Thursday night, music director Giancarlo Guerrero led the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in Bates’ new Violin Concerto.  Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, who premiered the concerto in Pittsburgh last December, is now giving this work its second performance in Nashville.

Bates is best known for fusing classical music with the crackling electronics of techno dance music. In fact, he is one of a new breed of composers who often perform as DJs, using turntables and laptops to accompany classical ensembles. Surprisingly, his new concerto is a completely “unplugged” acoustic work.

Lasting about 25 minutes, the concerto is arranged in three movements that are played without pause. The first movement, titled “Archaeopteryx,” is named for a feathered beast that lived in the late Jurassic. For Bates, this creature serves as a kind of metaphor for Anne Akiko Meyers’ style, which he sees as both ferociously virtuosic and ineffably light and beautiful.

The rest of the piece evolves (so to speak) from that initial idea. “Lakebed Memories,” the second movement, is a slow and sometimes jazzy meditation.” The finale, called “The Rise of Birds,” sends notes soaring above the orchestra in patterns of perpetual motion.

There’s much to admire in the new concerto. Bates loads the work with interesting effects that seem both primeval and contemporary at the same time. For instance, in the opening of the piece, he calls on the bassists and cellists to tap their instruments with their hands. The sound could be primitive percussion, or the beat of a DJ’s drum machine. This primordial opening eventually gives way to a few drop-dead gorgeous melodies.

Unfortunately, these melodies often come across as little more than beautiful moments in an otherwise tedious half hour. Melodies in the concerto frequently meander without a sense of purpose or destination. The work’s musical argument is likewise loose, sometimes amounting to nothing more than slow sections following fast sections.

Of course, with Ann Akiko Meyers onstage, these defects hardly seemed to matter. Throughout her performance on Thursday, the always brilliant Meyers played with a sensuous tone and a commanding technique. Guerrero and the NSO, for their parts, played with precision and drama. After that exhilarating performance, Meyers responded to several curtain calls.

The Bates concerto and other new works are important because they help prevent stagnation in the orchestral repertoire. Just as importantly, they help us listen to the familiar standards with fresh ears. That was the case with the other two works on the program – Copland’s El Salón Mexico and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 – which seemed somehow more vital and relevant when paired with contemporary music.

Copland’s 12-minute charmer is one of the most memorable sonic postcards in the repertoire. Composed in 1937 during Copland’s populist period, El Salón Mexico is a perfect fusion of Mexico folk music and modern compositional techniques. Copland fills the work with off-kilter rhythms and modern harmonic spice. Yet he manages to maintain the immediacy and vitality of the folk music. Guerrero and the NSO played this music with energy and joy.

Without question, the glory of Thursday’s performance came after intermission, with Guerrero and the NSO’s bracing rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Their performance had everything – passion, melancholy, lyricism, feverish intensity and high drama.

Indeed, the symphony’s four movements seemed to unfold as a continuous whole, like the sonic chapters of a sweeping Russian novel. Guerrero’s reading was also remarkable for its detail, for the transparency of the orchestra texture. The performance represented Guerrero and the NSO at their level best, and it won a thunderous and much-deserved ovation.