The latest release on live performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) on the ensemble’s CSO-Resound label (which, as of this writing, appears to be available only through digital download) features two world premieres, both of which were given their first performances in the Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center in Chicago in 2012. The first week in February saw the first performances of an “energy symphony” by Mason Bates entitled “Alternative Energy.” The following week CSO introduced its audiences to Anna Clyne’s tone poem “Night Ferry.” Both concerts were conducted by Music Director Riccardo Muti.
I have to confess that I have been looking forward to this release. No sooner had CSO completed the run of concerts premiering Clyne’s composition than they packed up and headed for my home town of San Francisco. This was the Centennial Season of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS); and the season included an American Orchestra Series, conceived to allow SFS to “invite its friends to its birthday party.” CSO gave two concerts in Davies Symphony Hall; and, as far as I could tell, they were the two concerts they had just given in Chicago. Thus, those of us in San Francisco could experience both of these pieces that had just been composed to be added to the CSO repertoire.
The recording has been organized with a reverse chronology, introducing the listener to Clyne’s piece before Bates’. I can think of a variety of reasons while the recording was produced this way; but the simplest is that “Night Ferry” starts with a bang. After all, getting the listener’s attention is the first task that any new composition must face.
In fairness, I should begin by observing that the phrase “tone poem” does not appear in the booklet text about Clyne’s composition; nor did I encounter it in the program book for the concert I attended. Nevertheless, she took her title from “Elegy,” a poem by Seamus Heaney written as a memorial to Robert Lowell; so this is definitely music that resides in the worlds of both “verbal” and “musical” poetry. Furthermore, after having listened to this piece several times, I would say that its connection to the tone poems of Jean Sibelius is stronger than the literary connection to either Heaney or Lowell. The phrase “stormy darkness” does appear in the booklet; and Clyne seems to share with Sibelius the ability to realize that phrase through music. The result is a recording that definitely seizes the listener’s attention from its very first gesture and, like Sibelius, maintains its grip on that attention through scrupulous control of the expenditure of energy.
Some of Bates’ compositions, on the other hand, have been described as “electro-acoustic” tone poems. Bates is based in the Bay Area, and the San Francisco Symphony has provided a platform for several of his works. These often involve the use of “electronica” (digitally processed sound sources) as part of the instrumentation process. So one way to approach much of his work is through his use of electronica to seek out new approaches to the traditional tone poem form.
In that respect “Alternative Energy” stands as a particularly fascinating study of the interplay between concrete and instrumental sounds. The four movements of this “symphony” follow a “narrative path” that begins with Henry Ford tinkering at building engines on his family farm and concludes at an imagined future (2222) in Reykjavik, whose inhabitants have progressed beyond an unquenchable thirst for sources of energy. While there is a somewhat sinister tone to this narrative, much of Bates’ rhetoric is strikingly upbeat, making for the best possible contrast to Clyne’s “stormy darkness.”
As the above video shows, Bates used his residency in Chicago to visit Fermilab, where he collected sounds for the second movement of “Alternative Energy.” He clearly approached this task with an almost boyish sense of wonder, which would explain the overall positive attitude of his rhetoric. Rather than deliberately trying to unfold a cautionary narrative, he lets the “raw sounds” of energy, delivered through his electronica, make his case, rather than overstating it with a more verbal message.
What matters most about this recording, however, is Muti’s performance of these two highly contrasting works. He has clearly cultivated an appreciation of both of them, an appreciation that culminates in joy. His command of the CSO is always right on target. As a result, both of these “rising talents” have been very well served by the release of this recording.