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Bates blending techno, classical on new release

| Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 8:33 p.m.

Pittsburgh music lovers aren't the only ones delighting in the discovery of Mason Bates' music.

This season, he's composer in residence with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and holds a comparable position with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In fact, music director Ricardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony included Bates' music in their concerts, which opened the 2012-13 season at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

In addition, the Philadelphia-born composer will extend his association with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, which began in 2000, with another residency and the first recordings of his orchestral music.

Principal guest conductor Leonard Slatkin, also a champion of Bates' music, will lead the Pittsburgh Symphony at concerts March 22 to 24 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The program is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 with Emanuel Ax as soloist, Bates' “The B-Sides” and Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5.

Bates is particularly excited about his first orchestral CD, which will be recorded in concert and combine “The B-Sides” with “Liquid Interface,” which Slatkin led at Heinz Hall in February 2010, and “Alternative Energy.”

“One of the down sides of being a composer with the orchestral medium is it's not easy to get recorded,” he says. “Thus far, I've had to be grateful with a lot of performances.”

Tilson Thomas broached the idea of “The B-Sides” during intermission at a San Francisco concert, and gave the world premiere at Davies Hall in 2009.

“ ‘The B-Sides' is certainly an important piece for me and has had a nice life to it,” Bates says. “I really wanted to have it put on a record for a long time. It was an interesting meeting point for electronic and acoustic worlds used in a different way, informed by (Arnold) Schoenberg and the B-sides of psychedelic rock.”

It is in five movements and focuses on texture and sonority, as Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra do.

Bates mentions in his program notes that he'd often thought of writing a suite of off-kilter symphonic pieces that would include the “grooves and theatrics of electronica.” His early experience as a DJ gives him a special fluency with techno dance music.

“So, like the forgotten bands from the flipside of an old piece of vinyl, ‘The B-Sides' offers brief landings on a variety of peculiar planets, unified by a focus on fluorescent orchestral sonorities and the morphing rhythms of electronica,” he writes.

While getting the first performance of a piece is a big hurdle for composers, many say the second performance is even tougher. Bates, however, has enjoyed multiple performances of many of his pieces. When he heard the Toronto Symphony Orchestra give the Canadian premiere of “Alternative Energy” in February, he found himself wondering if he should make some modifications based on experiencing it many times. The four-movement symphony is the piece Muti and the Chicago Symphony played at Carnegie Hall in October.

“I think you always have the inclination to tinker with stuff on the orchestration level even if it works well at the premiere,” Bates says.

“You try to get so much right the first time in the basic composition. It is too much trouble to rewrite a piece of orchestration in a million places where you think, if I did this it might work better. Yet, composers, we're perfectionists.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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