Be forewarned that when you hear Mason Bates’ “Violin Concerto”, a musical form Bates describes as equivalent to the Olympics for composers, you may tend to think of all the techno-infused music from his genius that delighted you before as relative doodles in the margins.
It certainly helped that this piece was played and in fact crafted with the musical personality of virtuoso Anne Akiko Meyers in mind and that she was performing on a violin that is purported to be the best sounding violin currently on the world stage. This is the 1741 ‘ex-Vieuxtemps’ Guarneri del Gesu violin, a 273 year-old instrument that is on permanent loan to her. Indeed this violin literally seemed to outshine all the others on the stage.
The Bates “Violin Concerto”, third in the lineup of four treasures of American music conducted by Leonard Slatkin that evening, has none of the techno music that you expect from a Bates composition. That said, it does have “new” sounds such as an opening dominated by base players beating the flank of their instruments as one would a drum. But it is the searing melody of the violin soloist that at times emerges from the sea of violins that grabs and holds you. Mainly in the upper registers of the violin, this is a melody that engages firmly upon first hearing, and which carries you through the entire piece.
Having just returned from Vietnam and many samplings of traditional music from one and two-stringed instruments, it was easy to hear echoes of Oriental note combinations in this piece and at times a swarming of singing flies. In the program notes, Bates explains, “…This hybrid musical creature is, in fact, based on a real one. The Archaeoperyx, an animal of the Upper Jurassic famously known as the first dinosaur-bird hybrid, can be heard in the sometimes frenetic, sometimes sweetly singing solo part.”
This was a CSO premiere performance for Anne Akiko Meyers, and a premiere of this work by the CSO. At the time of its world premiere with Slatkin’s Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Bates and Meyers shared their thoughts on this piece that you can hear in this video discussion.
The evening’s program also included: Barber’s “Overture to The School for Scandal”; Schuman’s “Symphony No. 6”; and a finale of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”.
Yes, we all left with a lilt in our step akin to Gene Kelly as the familiar themes of the Gershwin piece created our send-off home. Yet it was the Schuman symphony and Maestro Slatkin’s explanation of how the composer thought of it that most compelled emotional attention.
Slatkin, who knew the composer and president of Julliard during his lifetime, gave us a systematic demonstration of how the composer simply added one note to a chord structure to give it a haunting dissonance. Schuman’s unusual use of tympani to give color to the piece, giving them longer cadenzas to play than is the norm, was a new development in contemporary music that Schuman introduced in the 40s.
Almost as an aside, Slatkin shared that Schuman said “there are no victors in war” and that this piece, written in 1948, is perhaps a lamentation on the death and destruction of war. Knowing this we were able to hear the dark sounds of this piece with new ears. It was as though the famed painting Guernica began singing to us.
As always the perfection of the CSO’s performance allowed full focus on the musical delights before us.
This season’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances at Orchestra Hall, 220 South Michigan, continue through June 28. For a complete schedule visit the Chicago Symphony Orchestra website.