He was a DJ of electronic dance music. He also wrote the new piano concerto for the Philadelphia Orchestra.
What is a piano concerto today? The vast and varied musical revolution of the 20th century said anything goes. So the brand new piano concerto, world premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra on Friday afternoon, could have pushed all sorts of boundaries in form and style while still being called a piano concerto.
Its composer, too, could have drawn on a number of influences. His biography includes work as a DJ. But Mason Bates, 44, a Californian born in Philadelphia, produced a concerto whose basic outlines would have been recognizable to any dweller in a concert hall a century ago.
Traditionalists should be happy, and they were, judging by the enthusiastic reaction of the Verizon Hall audience to the Yannick Nézet-Séguin-directed play on Friday. Much of the approval was surely linked to the soloist, Daniel Trifonov, who has developed a strong relationship with this orchestra in recent years. Bates gave the pianist plenty of presence, both in technically showy flourishes as well as periods of crystalline introspection.
But none of Trifonov’s brilliant qualities would have aroused such immediate love from the listener if this piano concerto — co-commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony Orchestra — wasn’t as listener-friendly. Its three-movement structure, moderate-slow-fast, couldn’t have sounded more familiar. The musical language itself is emotionally direct.
And it had, for lack of a better term, a story. Each listener will have a personal reaction, of course, but Bates’ great strength is that he writes in a clear personal voice, which to these ears often echoes the best of film score writing. The feeling of a carefree Saturday morning came to mind from the first movement. It’s unerringly good-natured music, and who can’t be grateful for a journey to good and carefree in a time-stamped score with an October 2021 completion date? But then there are sections of complexity that you’d like to examine again and again, like the one further down in the first movement, from the solo piano music to the orchestral climax.
Even when he’s “melancholy” – as the second movement is marked in places – Bates always has the sun at his fingertips. Trifonov heard some of the writing as Rachmaninoff’s musical cousin and played it with appropriate tenderness and élan. The sense of history continued to play out in a third movement evoking Americana and an atmosphere close to pop music. I particularly liked when the movement took on a watery texture, like following a suddenly submerged IMAX adventure.
Mason Bates’ entry into the piano concerto genre might not be considered a milestone in innovation. But if the 21st century has taught us anything about the 20th, it’s that innovation absorbed an inordinate amount of attention from aficionados while the rest of the public was still eager to connect with more accessible sound. (And, of course, accessibility and innovation are not mutually exclusive.) Bates’ work achieves about the one thing we should expect from a composer in any era: a statement personal sincere and strongly expressed.
If the current Verizon Hall program wasn’t user-friendly enough, the orchestra supplemented it with Scheherazade. by Rachmaninoff The bells was originally announced, but the high-voiced piece was replaced by the Rimsky-Korsakov due to COVID concerns, an orchestra spokesperson said.
The value in the Rimsky was not so much Nézet-Séguin’s contribution, although you could admire the alternation of threat and softness he drew from the scoreline, but in brooding over individual players. There was a lot to love, especially solos by clarinetist Ricardo Morales, harpist Elizabeth Hainen, guest trombonist Weston Sprott and violinist David Kim.
The presence of oboist Philippe Tondre in the orchestra has continued to inspire discussion in the oboe world about whether he fits in stylistically. In a way, this is the wrong question. However, stylistically, the winds of this orchestra have become more and more individualized in recent years, and homogeneity is less of a shared value than it once was. Mowing, here and many nights, set a high standard. It is the sound of an orchestra moving forward.
Additional performances: Saturday 8 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m. at Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Sts. Tickets cost between $10 and $165. philorch.org, 215-893-1999.