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MTT and SFS to present the music of Mason Bates in a Beethoven context

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Following the annual New Year’s Eve Masquerade Ball, the subscription concerts by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall for 2014 will get under way with a two-week Beethoven and Bates Festival organized and conducted by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). Each of the two programs prepared for this festival will feature a composition by Mason Bates (with Bates himself performing the electronica part) presented between compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven. The hypothesis behind this conception is that, just as Beethoven significantly changed the experience of listening to music in the early nineteenth century, Bates’ approaches based on digital technology are having a similar impact in the present day.

In the first program MTT and SFS will revisit Bates’ five-movement suite The B-Sides, originally premiered by SFS in May of 2009. Bates has said the following about this music:

I had often imagined a suite of concise, off-kilter symphonic pieces that would incorporate the grooves and theatrics of electronica in a highly focused manner. So, like the forgotten bands from the flipside of an old piece of vinyl, The B-Sides offers brief landings on a variety of peculiar planets, unified by a focus on fluorescent orchestral sonorities and the morphing rhythms of electronica.

My initial reaction to this music was that Bates was delivering a “shock to the system” by bringing the sounds of contemporary club culture into Davies. In that context one may appreciate that The B-Sides will be coupled with Beethoven’s Opus 92 symphony in A major (the seventh), which may offer some of Beethoven’s most dance-like approaches to thematic material. Richard Wagner even went so far as to call this symphony the “apotheosis of the dance” (although Wagner’s own compositions would hardly exhibit his expertise in dance on either the ballet stage or the ballroom floor). Whether or not omens of club culture lurk in the pages of Opus 92, the symphony has a vigor that should provide an excellent complement to The B-Sides. On the other hand Bates’ composition will be preceded by the far more serene pair of romances that Beethoven composed for solo violin and orchestra, Opus 40 in G major and Opus 50 in F major. SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik will perform as soloist in both of these pieces.

In the second program SFS will present the first performances of Bates’ “Liquid Interface.” In this composition Bates turns his use of digital technology toward the capture and rendering of natural sounds, particularly those of glaciers breaking into the waters surrounding the continent of Antarctica. “Liquid Interface” is an attempt to structure a large narrative form around those sounds; and Bates has described the resulting music as “a response to the inclusion of text in the Ninth Symphony.” Rather than couple “Liquid Interface” with Beethoven’s Opus 125, however, MTT has situated it between two other settings of text. It will be preceded by four of the movements from the Opus 117 cantata King Stephen, setting commemorative texts by August von Kotzebue; and it will be followed by the Opus 86 C major setting of the Mass text. For these performances SFS will be joined by the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director) and vocal soloists Joélle Harvey (soprano), Kelley O’Connor (mezzo), William Burden (tenor), and Shenyang (bass-baritone).

Both of these programs will be given four performances in Davies.

  1. The first program will be presented at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, January 8, Friday January 10, and Saturday, January 11, and at 2 p.m. on Thursday, January 9. The Inside Music pre-concert talk will be given by John Palmer one hour prior to the concert and free to all ticket holders. The topic of the free audio podcast hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone, which will be posted on the Program Notes Podcasts Web page, will be the Opus 92 symphony. Ticket prices will range from $15 to $156.
  2. All performance of the second program will take place at 8 p.m. The dates will be Wednesday, January 15, Thursday, January 16, Friday, January 17, and Saturday, January 18. The Inside Music talk will be given by Peter Grunberg, and the topic of Malone’s free podcast will be the Opus 86 Mass setting. Ticket prices will range from $37 to $156.

There will also be a Festival Pack that will provide a 25% discount to those attending both concerts. A special Web page has been created with further information. Individual tickets may be purchased using the hyperlinks above to the event pages for the specific programs. They may also be purchased by calling 415-864-6000 or by visiting the Davies Box Office on Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The Box Office is open for advance sales from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday. It is also open two hours prior to all concerts.

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