Mason Bates and Mozart

Wednesday, August 14, 2019 , 6:30 PM

Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major for Violin and Viola, K. 364

Bates: Liquid Interface

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major for Violin and Viola, K. 364

Composed: 1779
Instrumentation: Solo violin, solo viola, 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings

In September 1777, Mozart left Salzburg and his stifling post at the court there in search of better prospects and a more vibrant musical atmosphere. After a brief stay in Munich, Mozart arrived in Mannheim knowing the excellent reputation of the court orchestra, which had developed a distinct sound under the direction of Joseph Stamitz. Soon after arriving, Mozart was introduced to many of the town’s musicians. In a letter to his father, Mozart notes that some knew who he was,

[but] others, who had never heard of me, stared at me wide-eyed and certainly in a rather sneering manner. They probably think that because I am little and young, nothing great or mature can come out of me; but they will soon see.

And indeed they did. Mozart stunned the town with lengthy and intricate fugues which he improvised at the organ during the mass the following week. Mannheim had seen nothing like him before, and Mozart was soon traveling in the circles of the musical elite. His stay in Mannheim was also personally rewarding, as he fell madly in love with the soprano Aloysia Weber. However, when Mozart’s father got wind of this aspect of his son’s trip, he grew concerned that Aloysia would hinder Mozart’s professional development, and he ordered his son to move on to Paris. Mozart complied and left Mannheim in March, but the sojourn in Paris was a disaster. Soon after arriving, his mother, who had accompanied him, died of illness, and Aloysia almost immediately forgot about him.

Although Mozart returned to Salzburg in January 1779 dejected and unemployed, the musical experience and exposure that he gained, especially in Mannheim, raised his own level of composition to new heights. Composed months after his return to Salzburg, Mozart’s K. 364 was inspired by his stay in Mannheim, where the sinfonia concertante genre was popular at the time. Developed as an extension of the Baroque concerto grosso, the sinfonia concertante used two or more solo instruments that were more independent than in previous forms, but not as dominant as the solo instrument in a Classical concerto. Although Mozart references other sinfonia concertanti in his writings, K. 364 is the only one he wrote that is known in its complete form today. What makes this work stand out from his earlier works, and from other works of its genre, is Mozart’s masterful handling of the instruments, both the solo instruments and the rest of the orchestra. By dividing the orchestral violas into two lines and treating the low registers of the horns and oboes with special care, Mozart creates a sound that exudes a richness and warmth presaging the compositional successes he would have in Vienna just two years later.

The memorable opening gesture, sforzando opening chords in the orchestra followed by descending arpeggio tiptoe in the violins, sets up the friendly mood of the first movement and begins a long orchestral introduction. When the solo instruments enter, they do so in a most unusual way: they emerge from the texture, blended with the orchestra at the end of the tutti section. Here, as in the other movements, the solo violin and viola truly work as partners, not competitors. They are treated equally, often in tag-team fashion; that is, they often alternate, rather than playing simultaneously, and phrases heard in one are frequently repeated note-for-note by the other. The brilliant cadenza that comes after the recapitulation continues this type of melodic dialogue between the instruments, now with the “resting” instrument providing harmonic accompaniment.

After a tutti introduction of the main theme of the C minor Andante, the solo violin sings the lament, poignantly ornamented. The viola begins its repeat of the violin’s phrase, but moves it into E-flat major, which is eventually confirmed by the orchestra. Interestingly, the viola plays a similar role in the middle section of the movement, now taking the E-flat major theme of the violin and moving it towards G minor, and then back to C minor. Mozart ends the movement with another impressive cadenza, a stirring duet that begins almost like a canon.

The jubilant finale is in rondo form: A-B-A-B-A.  The first A section is played by the orchestra, and the equally joyful B section is led by the violin whose phrases are dutifully repeated by the viola. The second A section moves the theme to the solo instruments which threaten to modulate to a darker C minor, but the next B section (now led by the viola) shifts suddenly to B-flat major. The piece is rounded off by a final repeat of A, extended in part by material from the B section.


Mason Bates (b. 1977)

Liquid Interface

Composed: 2007
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (all doubling piccolo), 2 oboes plus English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd doubling E-flat clarinet) plus bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion (vibraphone, chimes, marimba, suspended cymbal, bass drum, ride cymbal, crotales, xylophone, splash cymbal, high tam-tam, glockenspiel, 3 harmonicas, bongos, castanets, sizzle cymbal, 6 crystal water glasses, triangle, drum set, washboard with spoon, wind machine), harp, piano, electronica, and strings

Composer Mason Bates, here in Sun Valley as both composer and performer, refers to Liquid Interface as his “water symphony.”  The piece was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. which gave its premiere in February 2007 under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. Bates was still completing his Ph.D. in composition at UC Berkeley at the time. He writes of the inspiration for his piece:

Water has influenced countless musical endeavors—[Debussy’s] La Mer and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [by Wagner] quickly come to mind—but it was only after living on Berlin’s enormous Lake Wannsee did I become consumed with a new take on the idea. If the play of the waves inspired Debussy, then what about water in its variety of forms?

Bates began work on the piece in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an event that dramatically illustrated to the American public the potential dangers of global climate change. Liquid Interface, then, was conceived not only to represent the beauty of water as a natural phenomenon on Earth, but to portray the ways our changing planet influences this at once delicate and destructive resource.

Bates sees his work as a DJ as a strong influence on his classical-style scores, in particular on Liquid Interface. There is a subtle art in mixing together two records to create what is in effect a third aural “space,” a zone in which you are experiencing not simply two things at once but an entirely new idea that is more than, different than, the mere sum of its parts. In Liquid Interface, Bates uses the overlapping of drastically contrasting textures to support the architectural structure, moving from one representation to the next both between and within movements.  The dissolving soundscape that moves the glaciers of the first movement into the droplets of the second is a unique melting effect that “really comes from standing behind a turntable in a DJ booth for three hours [at a time]” according to Bates.

The use of techniques honed at the dance club and the incorporation of electronica in his scores is part of a tradition of genre cross-pollination which pervades the history of music. Bates cites Mozart and Gershwin as two inspirational practitioners of this exploitation of the stylistic mash-up. This was vividly clear in the Sinfonia Concertante which combined the Baroque concerto grosso form with Classical proportions and rhetorical narrative dialogue between the two soloists. (Gershwin’s quintessential mash-up Rhapsody in Blue is programmed for this Saturday). As for Liquid Interface, Bates provides the following description:

Liquid Interface…[inhabits] an increasingly hotter world in each progressive movement. “Glaciers Calving” opens with huge blocks of sound drifting slowly upwards through the orchestra, finally cracking off in the upper register. (Snippets of actual recordings of glaciers breaking into the Antarctic, supplied by the adventurous radio journalist Daniel Grossman, appear at the opening.) As the thaw continues, these sonic blocks melt into aqueous, blurry figuration. The beats of the electronics evolve from slow trip-hop into energetic drum ‘n bass. The ensuing “Scherzo Liquido” explores water on a micro-level: droplets splash from the speakers in the form of a variety of nimble electronica beats, with the orchestra swirling around them.

The temperature continues to rise as we move into “Crescent City,” which examines the destructive force as water grows from the small-scale to the enormous. This is illustrated in a theme and variations form in which the opening melody, at first quiet and lyrical, gradually accumulates a trail of echoing figuration behind it. In a nod to New Orleans, which knows the power of water all too well, the instruments trail the melody in a reimagination of Dixieland swing. As the improvisatory sound of a dozen soloists begins to lose control, verging into big-band territory, the electronics—silent in this movement until now—enter in the form of a distant storm.  At the peak of the movement, with an enormous wake of figuration swirling behind the soaring melody, the orchestra is buried in an electronic hurricane of processed storm sounds. We are swept into the muffled depths of the ocean.

This water-covered world, which relaxes into a kind of balmy, greenhouse paradise, is where we end the symphony in “On the Wannsee.” A simple, lazy tune bends in the strings above ambient sounds recorded at a dock on Lake Wannsee. At near pianissimo throughout, the melody floats lazily upwards through the humidity and—at the work’s end—finally evaporates.

Bates dedicated this work to his composition teacher John Corigliano. Of Corigliano, Bates has said “John Corigliano imparted something that is fairly rare:  you should really think about your architecture…. John was very imaginative about asking… how is this story going to be told?… You need to fully engage in a whole dialogue between your content and your form to bring [your composition] to life.”


Program notes by Jon Kochavi