The first program in the San Diego Symphony's 2018-19 Jacobs Masterworks series featured conductor Edo de Waart and pianist Joyce Yang. So did the second, and that's far from a complaint. Three or four more from them this season would be fine with me.

The concert format was also unchanged from week one: a contemporary orchestral work to begin, followed by a Romantic-Era piece for piano and orchestra, and concluding with a Classical symphony. The composers this time were Mason Bates, Rachmaninoff and Mozart.

The program opened with Garages of the Valley, a work dedicated to Maestro de Waart by the increasingly popular Mason Bates. Musical America, a classical-music-industry magazine with a history that goes back to 1898, recently named him the 2018 Composer of the Year and the most-performed composer of his generation (he's 41). Major symphony orchestras and conductors have been looking to Bates for fresh ideas that appeal to younger listeners.

Classical composers, now including Bates, have often courted a broader audience with elements of popular music. Touches of jazz in Ravel and Stravinsky work, and more than a touch in Gershwin does too, thanks to his stronger grounding in pop music. Bates's schtick is classical music with techno, or percussive electronic dance music. More Gershwin than Ravel in background, he's experienced in both genres; he owns a Berkeley PhD in composition and, as "DJ Masonic," lays down beats in clubs from San Francisco to Berlin.

Though at first an amusing surprise, techno effects are a creative electronic addition to the standard percussion section. And, importantly, those effects do pique the interest of young students, as I confirmed when prepping elementary-school classes on how to listen to and enjoy Bates's B-sides before a San Diego Symphony Young People's Concert. His compositions work well as introductions to classical music.

Garages of the Valley, in under 10 minutes, purports to tell the history of Silicon Valley where some of today's tech behemoths, Microsoft, Apple and Google included, began their trips to glory in a garage workshop Thus, cleverly, the name of the piece. But it isn't Bates at his best. Pleasantly colorful, and beautifully performed, it still disappoints. In the spirit of a tone poem, the work proceeds in frustrating starts and stops to indicate Silicon Valley's initial halting progress, satisfying as story, less so as music. The triumphant, well-orchestrated conclusion seems not worth the over-long getting-nowhere trip.

Bates's Mother Ship hammers a techno beat on top of a symphony orchestra in a driving hypnotic mix reminiscent of both minimalist-influenced John Adams and scenes from a dance floor filled with exuberant gyrating dancers. Try it for a better indication of why young students enjoy listening to him,

Symphony Hall's acoustics can contribute to a soloist getting lost in the orchestra, and that happened a couple of times during Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini when the piano should have been at least a near-equal partner. Nonetheless, it was an exciting performance. Joyce Yang was both technically and, more importantly, emotionally riveting. A screen above the stage projected her at the keyboard with a good view of hands and face. The former dazzled with accuracy and speed, the latter showed her reactions to the music. It seemed her fingers needed no guidance, that she was listening to the music they produced with as much surprised appreciation and pleasure as anyone in the hall. It was a master class in the range of emotions the piece produces, from the tender rapture of the famous 18th variation, to the demonic energy of the 24th, which Rachmaninoff dubbed the "Crème de Menthe Variation," reputedly because it was so difficult he had to steady his hands with a drink of that cocktail before each performance. Since the composer referred to Rhapsody as "a piece for my agent," perhaps the reported need to imbibe was a bit of publicity-oriented fake news. Either way, Rhapsody isn't easy to master and Yang certainly has.


The pianist, as in the previous week, chose a quietly poetic work for an encore, one of Rachmaninoff's many preludes. And, again, it was a satisfying final touch.

After intermission De Waart led a slimmed-down ensemble in a no-nonsense, flawless performance of Mozart's symphony No. 40, "The Great G Minor." Tempos were quick, dynamics and balance ideal, and the orchestra responded to de Waart with precision, as it always seems to do when he conducts. He returns in March of next year for Mahler's 4th. I plan to be there.

For concert schedule and ticket information visit the San Diego Symphony website.

Photos courtesy San Diego Symphony.

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From This Author Ron Bierman


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