A wild finish

Symphony ends season with eclectic, challenging concert

Conductor Scott Seaton leads the symphony in rehearsal for its season finale.

Conductor Scott Seaton leads the symphony in rehearsal for its season finale.

Photo by John Domogma

North State Symphony, Celebration Center Stage, Saturday, May 14, Laxson Auditorium.
NSS has posted its 2016-17 schedule online at northstatesymphony.org.

If you think classical music is stodgy, you should have attended the North State Symphony’s final Laxson Auditorium concert of the season Saturday night (May 14). It was wild.

That’s true especially of the opening piece, Mothership, a contemporary work by up-and-coming American composer Mason Bates. When not composing, Bates moonlights in dance clubs as DJ Masonic, a master purveyor of electronic dance music. He’s also the second-most-performed composer in the country, after John Adams.

Joshua Kosman, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, said of the 39-year-old Bates that he “writes music that is simultaneously old-fashioned in its outlook and bracingly new in its demeanor, and it satisfies the same urge for accessible novelty that people find in the other arts.”

Mothership, Bates himself has written, “shares a formal connection with the symphonic scherzo but is brought to life by thrilling sounds of the 20th century—the rhythms of modern-day techno in place of waltz rhythms, for example.”

As I say, it was wild, full of almost violent drumming and pulsing electronica. Conductor Scott Seaton and the musicians seemed thrilled to be playing such an innovative piece, and the audience responded with passionate applause.

This was followed by Giacomo Puccini’s early orchestral work, the Preludio Sinfonico, written when the great Italian opera composer was just 17 years old. It’s a lush and soothing work, and as such a fitting change from the intensity of Mothership and a bridge to the next piece, Beethoven’s “Leonore Overture, No. 3.”

This is one of four overtures the composer wrote for his only opera, Fidelio, and is considered too powerful and dramatic to be anything but self-sufficient. It’s performed often, however, because it’s also considered one of Beethoven’s greatest works, like a compressed version of some of his magnificent symphonies.

The opera is about a woman, Leonore, who disguises herself as a man named Fidelio in order to rescue her unjustly imprisoned husband, Florestan, from a Spanish dungeon. It is notable especially for its use of an off-stage trumpet call to signal his liberation and ending in a joyful celebration of freedom and conjugal love that is as “heroic” as anything Beethoven wrote. Seaton and the orchestra didn’t hold back, and the audience responded enthusiastically.

Rachmaninoff’s “epic” and “fiery” (Seaton’s words) Symphonic Dances, which followed intermission, was the last work he composed before his death in 1943, in Beverly Hills.

Best known perhaps for his astonishing piano concertos, with their virtuosic demands and soaring melodies, Rachmaninoff in his later years began infusing his symphonic compositions with greater rhythmic complexity.

This is especially true of Dances, which, as many commentators have pointed out, includes a modernist rhythmic element reminiscent of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring while retaining Rachmaninoff’s typically lush harmonies and serving as a review of his life and career.

Its performance concluded a remarkable concert, one in which Seaton and the orchestra succeeded in meeting huge challenges, beginning with Mothership and ending with Rachmaninoff’s greatest symphonic creation.

It was also a fitting end to Keith Herritt’s tenure as executive director of the North State Symphony. While the music director and the musicians usually are credited for the symphony’s successes, without Herritt’s largely unheralded but essential (and skillful) work on the business and organizational side, there would be no symphony. Happy retirement, Keith, and thanks!