Mason Bates (born 1977)
Saturday, April 22, 2023
Powell Hall, North Grand Boulevard, St Louis, Missouri
This Saturday-morning concert was delayed for broadcast by a few hours until the St Louis Symphony’s regular, usually live, 8 p.m. radio slot. Leonard Slatkin, synonymous with SLS (music director 1979-96, now conductor laureate) was in the main in Spain, opening with Chabrier’s excursional España (1883, composed following his trip to France’s neighbour), a classic example of a masterly and hugely enjoyable piece that has unfairly fallen from the repertoire. Slatkin and SLS gave España a crisp and exuberant outing, rhythms swinging infectiously, and with a spirited dash to the finishing post.
It was a lively entrada to works influenced by the written (Spanish) word. Commissioned by the Chicago Symphony and dedicated to Riccardo Muti, who conducted the premiere, Mason Bates’s Anthology of Fantastic Zoology (2015) owes to Jorge Luis Borges’s Manual de zoología fantástica (usually translated as Book of Imaginary Beings) for a half-hour score depicting amazing mythical creatures. Without electronics, although a Bates forte, this immediately engaging music – some passages reminding of Aaron Copland and John Williams – certainly paints pictures and also satisfies on its own terms, dazzlingly scored (and sometimes suggestive of those absent electronic means), energetically inventive, graphically evocative, warmly communicative, wistful, and involving spatial effects. A large orchestra is challenged with concerto-like writing, and rhythmic complexities, all met with virtuosity by the SLS members led by the totally in-tune Slatkin. The composer was present.
Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote (Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character) is of course centred on Cervantes’s novel about the named knight’s adventures, Sancho Panza by his side, involving sheep, windmills, flying through the air, and a whole lot more that is mood-changeable and scenic. Slatkin recorded Don Quixote with the Bavarian Radio SO some years ago, with Janos Starker as the Don, and he continues to conduct it with affection, flexibility, a fine sense of the pictorial and of glowing characterisations, as well as conscious of detail and incident, of which there is plenty. Joshua Roman was the guest cellist, a plain-speaking if sensitive reading rather than conjuring a larger-than-life personality – filmic descriptions were left to the orchestra – although Roman did present a dignified death, expressed poignantly, as the Don reaches the final page … or does he, for Roman left out the last note, as intended, I understand, to suggest that the Don’s adventures will continue (literally, for this concert is played again at 3 p.m. today). Beth Guterman Chu, SLS principal viola, made a vivid Panza, and David Halen, long-serving SLS concertmaster, also contributed much.
Symphonies await Slatkin next – Franck’s D-minor in Sacramento, and Elgar One in Nashville; then a Rhode Island gala with Renée Fleming, followed by a visit to the Hollywood Bowl (LA Phil). It would be nice to think that one day he will return to London where he has an association with all five of the symphony orchestras, and also with the BBC Proms (numerous appearances in the Albert Hall including a few Last Nights). Next year, on September 1, brings the conductor’s eightieth-birthday, surely a good-enough reason to issue an invitation.
Bates’s Violin Concerto; Anne Akiko Meyers w/ Detroit SO/Slatkin; undated.