Mason Bates’ musical notes from underground a mesmerizing vehicle for CSO, Hubbard Street Dance

Fri Apr 16, 2010 at 8:13 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Incoming CSO Composer-in-Residence Mason Bates whose “Music from Underground Spaces” was performed Thursday night.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has just bid farewell to an unusually strong pair of composers-in-residence: Osvaldo Golijov and Mark-Anthony Turnage.

CSO audiences will remember compelling performances of Golijov’s luminous opera Ainadamar in 2008. World premiere performances of Turnage’s Chicago Remains, composed in 2007, were equally memorable. Commissioned by the CSO and inspired by a boat tour Turnage took along the Chicago River, the work’s craggy harmonies and rhythms paint an indelible portrait of the densely packed skyscrapers lining the river’s downtown banks.

The CSO’s 2010-11 season brings a new resident-composer duo: San Francisco-based Mason Bates and Anna Clyne, a native of London. Young composers who incorporate electronics in their orchestral pieces, they promise to take CSO audiences into new sonic territory. Judging from Thursday night’s performance of Bates’ Music from Underground Spaces, it is going to be a fascinating ride.

Composed in 2007, the piece was the musical half of the CSO’s annual collaboration with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Sharing the stage with the CSO for Bates’ piece were eight Hubbard Street dancers in a work titled Deep Down Dos by Alejandro Cerrudo, Hubbard Street’s resident choreographer. Carlos Kalmar presided over the performance that also included music of de Falla and Ravel.

Composers have been amplifying the orchestra’s sound palette for centuries, adding devices ranging from wood blocks to cow bells. Ferruccio Busoni and Edgard Varese experimented with electronic sound in the early 1900s. In many pieces for orchestra and electronics, however, the electronic sounds seem to exist mainly for shock value. Their explosions, crackles, whistles or roars usually serve as exclamation points that interrupt the orchestral flow and send it in new directions.

In Music for Underground Spaces, however, the orchestra and electronica (controlled by Bates who sat amid the musicians with an electronic drum pad and laptop) were much more tightly integrated.

And why not? Born in 1977, Bates has grown up with electronic music and computers. But he also has a strong classical music background, from piano lessons and singing in a choir as a youngster to study at Juilliard. He is at home in both worlds, and acoustic and electronic sound meshed beautifully in his 14-minute work.

Ironically, Music from Underground Spaces was inspired by the sounds of potentially catastrophic collisions: earthquake recordings made in a California seismology lab. Organized in four connected movements– Tunnels, Infernos, Crystalline Cities and Tectonic Plates— the piece explores various levels of underground sound. It opens with the dark, muffled roar of subway trains and ends with the gentle creaks and pops of shifting, subterranean earth.

Under Kalmar’s baton the music unfolded seamlessly, the sounds of groaning earth emerging organically from the rough-hewn sound of the low winds and strings. As the rumble of the subway train faded, the orchestra picked up its lingering overtones, spinning out intensely driven, mesmerizing phrases.

Cerrudu’s choreography echoed the music’s strong rhythmic pulse. Hurling themselves into sharp leaps, racing purposefully across the black floor in front of the orchestra, the dancers erupted like excitable atoms. In a meditative duet, the dancers lunged and swayed, their moves starting out quickly, only to melt into slow motion.

Musical colors in the rest of the program—Falla’s Three Dances from El amor brujo and Ravel’s Mother Goose and La Valse—were vividly colored. The instrumental blend was a bit rough in La Valse, but a mellow, evanescent hush prevailed in the Prelude to Mother Goose.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.; 312-294-3000.

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