Review: SF Symphony premieres a blunt, boxy concerto from Mason Bates

Pianist Daniil Trifonov Photo: Dario Acosta

All composers draw on music of the past, but they do it in different ways. Some assimilate the voices of their predecessors in a broad, territorial embrace; some scooch over on the sofa to make room for a personal dialogue.

Both approaches were in evidence — not with equal measures of success — at Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday, June 2, during conductor Ruth Reinhardt’s arresting debut with the San Francisco Symphony.

On one hand there was “Of Footprints and Light,” a tender, insinuating score by the Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski, the first and hopefully not the last appearance of her music on a Symphony program. And on the other there was the West Coast premiere of Mason Bates’ blunt, blustery Piano Concerto, a Symphony co-commission written for the artistry of soloist Daniil Trifonov.

The comparison isn’t quite fair, admittedly. Wennäkoski’s 11-minute work is a meditation on a specific piece of music, an unfinished opera by her little-known Finnish compatriot Ida Moberg. Bates’ three-movement concerto, by contrast, attempts to tackle several centuries’ worth of classical piano music, ranging from the Renaissance to contemporary times.

Conductor Ruth Reinhardt Photo: Jessica Schfer

But the questions raised by the two pieces are still of interest. What do we owe the great artists of bygone times in repurposing their work? What do they owe us?

One thing contemporary creators owe their predecessors, surely, is to focus attention on the work of the past clearly and directly, rather than through second- and third-hand translations. I had many complaints about Bates’ concerto — the boxiness of its rhythmic language, the almost deliberate poverty of its harmonic palette — but this was the main one.

The piece bills itself as a sort of guided tour through three phases of classical music history. The opening movement has echoes of vigorous Renaissance dance music, the central slow movement dabbles in Romantic-era moodiness, and the finale bounces around through strains of jazz and minimalism.

Yet the actual sounds of those periods are almost nowhere to be heard. Instead, Bates draws on pop-music pastiches of the styles in question. The opening movement is less reminiscent of the actual Renaissance than of second-tier imitations by such 1970s prog-rock bands as, well, Renaissance. The two latter movements are classical and modern tropes as filtered through the sensibilities of a Disney sound track.

The choices here are frankly bewildering. Bates, a longtime Bay Area resident who often composes with inventiveness and flair, has flattened out his distinctive creative voice into a medley of boisterous and obvious tunes.

Composer Mason Bates Photo: Todd Rosenberg / © Todd Rosenberg Photography

There are strokes here and there that remind a listener of more invigorating possibilities — a brief but inspired curtain-raising gesture that whispers of magic to come, a sudden shift into a seven-beat meter amid the rhythmic regularity. And Trifonov’s performance, by turns delicate and heroic, made the best of the music at every turn.

But the results paled in comparison to Wennäkoski’s intricate, gorgeous piece of musical lacework. Her 12-minute dreamscape opens with eerie footsteps through a fog, scored to immaculate perfection. When the oboe arrives with the first melodic quotation from Moberg’s forgotten score, the effect is like a shimmery spectral visitation come to light.

Reinhardt, an American conductor who has held posts with the Dallas Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led both new works with evident assurance. But it was after intermission, in a vibrant, splendidly shaped account of Dvorák’s Fifth Symphony, that she truly showed what she could do.

In particular, Reinhardt had a powerful success in one of the main challenges with Dvorák — how to retain his distinctively dark, heavy orchestral colors without letting the rhythms bog down. In the two outer movements especially, the textures sounded aptly rich, but Reinhardt’s sleek, physical podium manner kept things moving handsomely.

San Francisco Symphony: 7:30 pm Friday-Saturday, June 3-4; 2 p.m. Sunday, June 5. $35-$125. Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., SF 415-864-6000. www.sfsymphony.org



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