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It was a leap into the unknown for composer and soloist alike.
Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers is one of the most adventurous soloists on the international scene today. In addition to traveling the world playing music by masters stretching from Vivaldi to Bruch on her 1741 Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu instrument, she commissions and performs concertos and solo pieces by a Who’s Who of contemporary composers—John Corigliano, Jennifer Higdon and Wynton Marsalis among them.
But when she asked Mason Bates, the young San Francisco-based composer who is also composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for a violin concerto, she didn’t know what to expect. Bates, who moonlights as a club DJ, is known for scores that deftly mix electronic sounds with the acoustic timbre of the symphony orchestra. Meyers could have easily found herself in a sonic mix that included the exotic whooshes and blips of synthesized electronica as well as the more familiar sounds of strings, woodwind, brass and percussion.
And Bates had never written a concerto before, never mind one for violin, an instrument he didn’t play.
“I’ve written a lot for strings in the orchestra,” said Bates whose music has been performed by major orchestras throughout the world. “But writing for solo violin is completely different. It was like writing a one-person play in a language you don’t speak. It was very intimidating at first.”
Meyers will perform the Chicago premiere of Bates’ Violin Concerto with the CSO conducted by Leonard Slatkin Thursday night through April 22 at Symphony Center. The all-American program also includes The School for Scandal Overture by Samuel Barber, William Schuman’s Symphony No. 6 and Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Slatkin presided over the concerto’s world premiere in December 2012 with the Pittsburgh Symphony where he has been principal guest conductor since 2008.
Meyers and Bates first worked together in the mid-2000s when she asked him to write a cadenza for the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which she performed on tour in Holland with the North Netherlands Orchestra. Beethoven left no cadenza for his 1806 concerto, and over the centuries numerous artists—ranging from legendary violinists Joseph Joachim and Fritz Kreisler to contemporary Russian composer Alfred Schnittke—have filled in the gap.
“I’ve been a supporter and fan of Mason’s for close to a decade,” said Meyers. “His music is highly accessible and interesting, very melodic and atmospheric, almost cinematic. I was aware that he was working with other instrumentalists, so I asked him for a cadenza for the Beethoven concerto. I toured with the cadenza and audiences really liked it.”
After that initial collaboration, Meyers hatched the idea of asking Bates for a violin concerto.
“It always takes a long time from the moment of asking to actually commissioning something,” said Meyers. “The idea came up maybe six years ago. Mason was getting more and more popular, but things like being named composer-in-residence at the CSO came much later. I commissioned him and wrote about the concerto to Leonard Slatkin. He was immediately interested. We were so thrilled that he responded right off the bat. We said, ‘Wow! We have a believer here!’ “
Slatkin first worked with Bates when he was music director of the National Symphony in Washington, a post he held from 1996 to 2008.
“I’ve been doing Mason’s pieces for five or six years,” said Slatkin, who is currently music director of the Detroit Symphony and the Orchestre National de Lyon in France. “I commissioned his Liquid Interface when I was at the National Symphony. I knew about him from John Corigliano (Bates’ composition teacher at The Juilliard School). John and I are very close, and when somebody studies with John and John recommends them, you know that they know how to write for orchestra.”
Bates served as composer of the year at the Pittsburgh Symphony for the 2012-13 season (a post he returns to next season), and the Pittsburgh Symphony agreed to co-commission his Violin Concerto along with Meyers.
Meyers gave Bates free rein on the concerto.“She’s great in that way,” he said. “She said, ‘I really want you to do what you want to do.’”
But the composition process involved much back-and-forth between soloist and composer. Tailored to showcase Meyers’ blend of of fiery virtuosity and ethereal lyricism, the solo violin part is highly demanding with very few breaks for rest.
“Mason finished it [in summer 2012] and we were changing things right and left,” said Meyers. “It was definitely an evolution.” There were numerous sessions on Skype, and Meyers recalls that they were tweaking the piece even after the world premiere in Pittsburgh.
“We went back and forth all the time,” said Bates. “There were so many details. There were a lot of instances where changing a note here and there would make things much smoother for the violin.”
But Meyers, who lives in the Austin, Texas, area with her husband and children, also recalls her excitement when she first laid eyes on the concerto. Performed with no breaks between its three movements, the concerto is approximately thirty minutes long. Bates was inspired by images of an ancient beast, a cross between dinosaur and bird known as the archaeopteryx, which lived 150 million years ago in the Jurassic era.
“I ran to my husband and said, ‘Holy Cow! This is going to be so cool.’ I was so flabbergasted,” Meyers recalled. “The rhythmic interplay between the orchestra and violin that’s sort of jazzy, the story of a prehistoric dinosaur that [eventually] takes flight. Mason’s music is always based on a concept of things that I would never think of myself.”
She was also surprised that the concerto had no electronic element. But Bates was concerned that adding electronica would undermine the solo violin. The soloist must command the spotlight in a concerto, he said, but electronica also tends to seize center-stage when used with symphonic instruments.
“You want to make sure that this 18-inch solo instrument can project through the orchestra,” he said. “She’s the focus. It can get complicated if you add electronics.”
Also, he doesn’t want to be identified solely by his use of electronica. “It’s just one of the tools in the toolbox,” he said.
Like Slatkin, Meyers is deeply committed to supporting contemporary music. Their recording of Bates’ Violin Concerto will be released in a few months, and Bates is writing a new piece for violin and piano that she will perform at the Aspen Festival this summer.
“I’m always working with a steady diet of traditional composers,” she said. “If Ravel and Rachmaninoff were alive, I’d be harassing them for a violin concerto.
“Music is a language that is so unexplainable. I want to stay current, to help develop a language that’s current.”
Anne Akiko Meyers performs Mason Bates’ Violin Concerto with Leonard Slatkin and the CSO 8 p.m. Thursday, 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. April 22. The program also includes The School for Scandal Overture by Samuel Barber, William Schuman’s Symphony No. 6 and Gershwin’s An American in Paris. cso.org; 312-294-3000.