Waiting for Podcasts

Last night’s remarkable performance by Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Davies Symphony Hall as part of the San Francisco Symphony‘s American Orchestras series for its centennial celebrations reminded me that I am still awaiting the release of the new podcast series that the SF Symphony is supposed to be releasing this season around each of the residencies by top-tier visiting orchestras from around the country.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic came through last October but the accompanying podcast of the roundtable discussion that went on around the orchestra’s visit still hasn’t been released. Same thing with the Boston Symphony, which popped into Davies in December. I gather that Los Angeles is forthcoming. Why does it take four months to get it out? For an orchestra that prides itself on being at the cutting edge of new media deployment, this seems slightly absurd.

But back to last night’s concert: The highlight for me was Alternative Energy by Mason Bates (pictured.) The work, which is divided into two sweeping movements, takes a kaleidoscopic journey on the theme of energy use through four different locations and times. The first half spans the American rural midwest in the late 19th century and present day Chicago. The second half pitches forward to Xinjiang Province in China a century from now and winds up in Reykjavik, Iceland, in the year 2222.

Bates rarely resorts to musical cliche, though there were snatches of pentatonic scales to be heard in the Chinese section. And the second half of the piece is packed with otherworldly thocks and beeps emanating via a swirling surround-sound speaker system from an on-stage laptop, commandeered in last night’s west coast premiere by the mop-headed thirty-something composer himself.

What’s most gripping about Bates’ vision of energy use across time (from a steam-powered junkyard, to a present-day particle collider, to a high-tech nuclear plant and finally to something more primordial) is how energetic and optimistic it is. The work is riddled with humor — provided in the first half in part by the pitching and sputtering of a loud and persistent rattle and by quirky computer sounds in the second. Plus, the music is utterly kinetic, packed with jubilant rhythms that call Leonard Bernstein most strongly to mind. As I listened, I could picture a ballet company, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet maybe, dancing to Bates’ music. The work would make the soundtrack for a great programmatic dance work.

It’s rare to hear positive things about our future on this planet. Many people think our energy needs and the greed associated with those needs are the thing most likely to destroy us. Bates’ progressive view of energy use provides an alternative perspective, as refreshing as the thought of solar power in a coal-smoked room.

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