How do you shake up the concert experience in a field that depends on you listening, with focus, to people making music? The classical music world is actively looking for an answer. In November, Mason Bates, the Kennedy Center’s composer-in-residence, offered one solution when he launched his KC Jukebox series, filling three separate spaces with different kinds of music and letting the audience (with drinks) mill among them. On Monday, he presented his second concert, this time in the Theater Lab — and unwittingly demonstrated just how hard it is to break the mold.
November’s concert was about ambient music; Monday’s concert, “Of Land and Sea,” was more about ambiance. The idea was that all the works on the program related to specific places in the world, from Peru — evoked in the short vignettes of Gabriela Lena Frank’s string quartet “Milagros” — to the ocean, which Kevin Puts addressed in his pretty but long-winded “Seven Seascapes.”
The experience was mitigated through the use of dramatic lighting, videos, recorded sounds in between the works — the rush of water; the insects in a rain forest — and program notes projected onto screens behind the stage. These were meant to fill in the “dead time” when the stagehands were setting up for the next piece, but sometimes they seemed only to prolong it.
Had Bates not led with such a dramatic opening salvo in November, the concert might have seemed more striking. As it was, varied though the music was, the evening felt long. Not that there was anything wrong with the performance. A perk of this series so far has been the chance to see National Symphony Orchestra musicians in a different light (literally, thanks to the lighting effects playing over the stage floor). Fresh off the plane from their European tour, the young members of the Last Stand Quartet, NSO musicians all, plunged with conviction into Frank’s elegant evocations. Aaron Goldman and Abel Pereira, the principal flute and horn, balanced long lines against Lisa Emenheiser’s piano in the Puts piece; and Loren Kitt, the principal clarinet, added his voice to the propulsive rhythms in Bates’s own “Red River,” which close the program.
The concert’s highlights — the things that brought most energy to the stage — were two early percussion pieces by Christopher Rouse, played by a group that included three percussionists from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. The quartet “Ku-Ka-Ilimoku” evoked Hawaii; “Ogoun Badagris,” for five players, the spirit of voodoo, wild and exuberant and concluding with a bracing yell that sent a frisson through the room. Music, itself, can be exciting. The challenge is finding ways to bring that message across, and to capture, in the concert hall, the energy that pulsed through the foyer at the very loud after-party, with complimentary daiquiris, afterwards.
The third concert in the KC Jukebox series, “New Voices, Old Muses,” is April 18.