What is a piano concert today? The vast, varied musical revolution of the 20th century said anything goes. And so the piano concerto, fresh from the press, premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra on Friday afternoon, could have shattered all possible boundaries of form and style and still qualify as a piano concerto.
Its composer too could have drawn on a number of influences. His biography includes work as a DJ. But Mason Bates, 44, a Californian who was born in Philadelphia, has created a concerto whose outlines any concert hall dweller could have recognized a hundred years ago.
Traditionalists should be happy, and they were, judging by the lively response from the Verizon Hall crowd to Friday’s play, directed by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The soloist Daniil Trifonov, who has built up a solid relationship with this orchestra in recent years, certainly played a large part in the approval. Bates gave the pianist plenty of presence, both in technically ostentatious flourishes and sections of spare, crystalline introspection.
But none of Trifonov’s brilliant qualities would have inspired such immediate listener love if this piano concerto – co-commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony – had not been so listener-friendly. Its three-movement, moderate-slow-fast structure could not have seemed more familiar. The musical language itself is emotionally direct.
And it had, for lack of a better term, a history. Each listener will have a personal reaction, of course, but Bates’ great strength is that he writes in a clear personal voice that, to these ears, often reflects the best of film music. In the first sentence, the feeling of a carefree Saturday morning came to mind. This is invariably good-natured music, and who can’t be thankful for a journey of good and lightheartedness in a score timestamped to a completion date of October 2021? But then there are complex sections that you want to keep examining, like that later in the first movement from the pure piano music to the climax of the orchestra.
Even though he’s “melancholic” – as the second movement is marked in places – Bates always has the sun within reach. As Rachmaninoff’s musical cousin, Trifonov heard some of the lyrics and played them with appropriate tenderness and panache. The sense of history continued in a third movement that touched on Americana and an almost pop-music vibe. I particularly liked when the movement took on a watery texture, as if we were following an IMAX adventure that had suddenly submerged.
Mason Bates’ entry into the piano concerto genre may not be considered a milestone of innovation. But if the 21st century has taught us anything about the 20th, it’s this innovation that has garnered disproportionate attention from enthusiasts while the rest of the public was still eager to connect with a more accessible sound. (And, of course, accessibility and innovation are not mutually exclusive.) Bates’ work delivers about the one thing we should expect from a composer of any age: a genuine, strongly expressed personal statement.
If Verizon Hall’s current program wasn’t listener-friendly enough, the orchestra rounded it out with Sheherazade. Rachmaninoff’s The Bells was originally announced, but the vocal-heavy piece was replaced with the Rimsky-Korsakov due to COVID-related concerns, an orchestra spokesman said.
The value in the Rimsky was not so much in Nézet-Séguin’s contribution, although one could admire the alternating menace and sweetness he drew from the score, as in musing individual players. There was a lot to love, especially solos by clarinetist Ricardo Morales, harpist Elizabeth Hainen, guest trombonist Weston Sprott and violinist David Kim.
The presence of oboist Philippe Tondre in the orchestra has continued to stimulate debate in the oboe world as to whether he fits in stylistically. In a way, it’s the wrong question. The fact is that the wind instruments in this orchestra have become more and more individualized in style in recent years and that homogeneity is less of a common value than it used to be. Tondre has set a high standard here and on many evenings. His is the sound of an orchestra moving forward.
Additional performances: Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. at Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Sts. Tickets range from $10 to $165. philorch.org, 215-893-1999.