You’re never going to please everybody when it comes to contemporary music — or, heck, when it comes to music at all. Go for the classics and you’re too traditional. Go for a young audience and you’re not paying enough attention to those who already love the art form. And so on.
So you have to hand it to Mason Bates for his KC Jukebox series. Devoted to contemporary music and launched when Bates arrived as the Kennedy Center’s composer-in-residence in the fall of 2015, it has been an uneven and varied sequence of musical experiences so far, but each performance certainly has a sense of an event — and draws in a disparate crowd with a visible mix of ages and styles that seems distinctive, in my experience, among Kennedy Center music events.
For the latest one, “Ravishment,” on Monday night, the Kennedy Center’s upstairs Atrium was bathed in a silvery-blue-lit haze, with a stage at one end of the space, a DJ near the other end and listeners seated at small tables and on sofas, partaking of food and drink from a cash bar by the entrance. One of the goals of such events is to create an atmosphere that makes people willing to listen to things they don’t know and linger after the last notes of music — in this case, from John Adams’s second string quartet — have died away, and in this, the evening succeeded.
Another plus is the way these concerts have integrated musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. The next three KC Jukebox events, to be sure, will spotlight outside musicians (including the vocal ensemble Chanticleer on May 2 and the DJ collaborative Thievery Corporation on May 15). But highlights from the Kennedy Center’s home team Monday included Aaron Goldman, the NSO’s principal flute, and Rachel Young, a section cellist who appeared in all five of the pieces, including making her way valiantly through the Adams as part of a string quartet that clearly wasn’t used to playing together.
Oh, yes, the music. It can be hard to remember at an event at which so many other factors come into play. The evening was, in Bates’s words, devoted to music “of heightened emotion, from surreal dream-world to ecstatic love.” But the program, as perhaps befits its Harlequin-romance title, seemed slender (one piece was removed at the last minute).
Some of the music seemed almost incidental, such as “The Night Mare” by Chris Cerrone, a composer with a burgeoning career who here built a collection of individual instrumental tones atop a drone recorded from a passing train, culminating in a punchline of sound. David Hertzberg’s “Ellébore” was a pretty little thing about a flower in the snow, with icy piano figures throwing off little cold aureoles of notes from the violins.
The composer Lisa Bielawa was the vocal soloist in her own two pieces — the eponymous “Ravishment,” a setting of a poem by Shelley, and “Drama/Self Pity,” which used overheard fragments of conversation and two instrumental ensembles in different parts of the room. But the shrill, thin vocal lines and blasting accompaniment were more ambitious than successful. The heavy hitter on the program was the Adams, a dialogue with Beethoven carried out through refracted snippets of some of his music, but that, alas, foundered a bit on the four string players’ uneven performance.
It wasn’t, then, an evening that necessarily sparked excitement about the thrill of new music. But at least people could enjoy their drinks.
The next KC Jukebox program, on Feb. 22, focuses on music and instruments by Victor Gama.