I was lured to the Chicago Symphony Thursday to see Mason Bates' "Music from Underground Spaces". The rest of the program was filled up--that is not to say "rounded out"--by pieces from the 1910s by Ravel and De Falla, making the program neither homogenous nor heterogenous. The odd program was reflected in the audience; not part of a regular subscription, the concert attracted a younger and more diverse crowd, bringing a different, more relaxed atmosphere to the evening.
De Falla's 3 Dances from El Amor Brujo opened the concert, which the man sitting ahead of me in the lower balcony tried to help conduct. To no avail: the conductor at the podium, Carlos Kalmar, needed almost no assistance with the fun, easy pieces. [And yet, during the ovation, the man ahead of me helped cue the orchestra to stand.]
After the De Falla, about 10 minutes of music, there was an equal or greater pause while the stage hands cleared the chairs from the marley to set up for the Bates piece. It was just enough time for heated discussions broke out in the audience about whether it was the pianist or the timpanist who was rushing in the Ritual Fire Dance.
At long last, the dancers slipped onto the stage in darkness for Bates' "Music from Underground Spaces". Bates, composer by day, DJ by night, wrote the piece for orchestra and electronics, the latter of which he performed himself by triggering and controlling sounds through a laptop and an interface. The piece was chosen by choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo for the concert who found the score's ambiguity a "blank canvas" on which to paint.
As an orchestral composer, Bates has the vision and technique to one day be great. "Underground Spaces", however, is more an example of his potential than of his greatness. Written when Bates was 30, the piece seems to show Bates on the verge of artistic maturity--with certain lessons still to learn, certain stylistic influences like John Adams still coming blatantly to the fore.
While I could see how the piece's rhythm would be attractive to a dancer, as a musician, I found "Underground Spaces" too straight forward. The rhythms didn't seem to vary from a strict 4/4 throughout the majority of the work and, in general lacked character.
Known for his fusing of classical and electronica, here, Bates seems tentative in his use of electronics, playing mostly bass drum pulses. He is still looking for the appropriate balance of symphony and electronics, treating the electronics like an auxiliary percussionist, making the use of electronics seem forced and unnecessary. For an audience who doesn't know electronic music, it may have sounded new and fresh, but I, for one, was hoping for something more advanced and involved--along the lines of Autechre or Matmos.
The final movement, "Tectonic Plates", was the most successful for both the music and the dance. The slowly changing, ambient chords gave a sublime backdrop for the dancers' intimate duet.
Fortunately, this is not the last we will see of Bates; we here in Chicago will get to watch him emerge over the next 2 years as he assumes the role of composer-in-residence along with Anna Clyne.
After the intermission, the program continued with Mother Goose by Ravel, which, though beautiful, was soporific compared to the Bates that had come before. In this and the final piece, Ravel's La Valse, Maestro Kalmar earned his keep with a delicate yet dramatic interpretation.
Ravel's Valse is a fine piece to end with, and De Falla's worked as an opening, but the middle of the concert felt hollow. Too much Ravel; too little depth. And yet, the agglomeration of people making up the audience seemed overwhelmed with appreciation for Bates, the dancers, and Kalmar.