Mason Bates’s KC Jukebox: Of Land & Sea, February 22, 2016
Mason Bates’s inaugural “KC Jukebox” was always going to be a tough act to follow. For one night last November, the Kennedy Center’s new, young composer-in-residence managed to turn the staid institution into a bustling spot for experimental music. That evening—the first in a new contemporary music series overseen by Bates—was, at its heart, a really fun party that also opened up intriguing possibilities for rethinking traditional ways of experiencing classical music.
The second installment in the series, presented at the Kennedy Center Theater Lab on Monday night, fell short of fulfilling that promise. Unlike the first concert – where the audience freely circulated through three period-specific “lounge” spaces in a “walk-through history of ambient music”—Monday’s KC Jukebox, titled “Of Land & Sea,” didn’t attempt to radically alter the familiar concert-going experience. (Nor did it attract a markedly younger or more diverse demographic.) It was, essentially, a traditional, seated concert of contemporary music written for small, chamber-sized ensembles that could have been presented at any number of institutions around town.
The first KC Jukebox was so successful, in part, because it managed to create and sustain a relaxed, casual, and novel atmosphere for enjoying music. Bates’s “curated” lounges were a stimulating setting for listening to unfamiliar music and for hearing familiar music in a new way. While the logistics of moving hundreds of people through three separate spaces necessitated some artistic compromises, the evening nonetheless proved vibrant and immersive.
On Monday night, however, Bates and his crew could not solve the seemingly simpler logistical challenge of resetting the stage quickly in between pieces. The evening began promisingly with excerpts from Gabriela Lena Frank’s colorful, spiky evocation of the daily life of Peru, “Milagros,” performed by the Last Stand Quartet. Yet the piece led to what was the first of a series of seemingly interminable pauses, as the stagehands fussed and fumbled about to reset the stage for the next set of performers. This increasingly awkward comedy of errors, including a minutes-long quest to correctly plug in music stand lights, killed any sense of momentum and deadened the atmosphere in the theater. Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter (seated next to me) became more and more frustrated at the evening’s stage management—and at her powerlessness to do anything about it.
Bates used video projections and light electronic music to cover the set changes, but they weren’t sufficient to overcome the shortcomings of stagecraft and sustain the energy and atmosphere of the concert. The projections, in and of themselves, were fine—they were understated and conveyed just the right amount of information about each piece and each composer. They were also certainly slicker and more elegant than the norm for projections at classical music concerts (here I’m thinking of the amateurish World War II-themed PowerPoint used by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for its performances of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony in 2012). But Bates’s projections didn’t conjure a transportive environment that made the audience experience the music in a fundamentally different way.
The music, itself, proved a mixed bag. Bates’s program brought together a collection of short contemporary pieces inspired by the theme of geography. Two propulsive pieces for percussion ensemble by Christopher Rouse—“Ku-Ka Ilimoku” (a take on a Hawaiian war dance) and “Ogoun Badagris” (a savage evocation of Haitian Voodoo ritual)—generated the most excitement. Kevin Puts’s maritime-themed “Seven Seascapes” sounded wanly pretty and stuck in the mid-20th century, with a main theme that could have been written by Aaron Copland. Bates’s meandering “Red River”—the only work on the program that incorporated electronic music—brought the concert to a somewhat anti-climactic close. When the house lights came up, many members of the audience looked around, as if to ask, “Was that it?”