The room was filled with a cool red haze, needled through with the fanning fingers of light from wall-mounted projectors, through which audience members appeared in silhouette. Two arched and mullioned windows hung over a crowded, elevated stage. The effect lay somewhere between a club-Goth ambiance and a school play set in Middle America, a calculated balance between edginess and familiarity.
Here is the appeal, or hope, of Mason Bates’s KC Jukebox series, which concluded its season with a performance called “New Voices, Old Muses” in the Kennedy Center Atrium on Monday night: You never know where it’s going to take you next, but it wants you to feel safe on the journey.
Contemporary music series are increasingly popular around the country — at least, with presenters. Audiences don’t seem to be buying as many tickets as they once did to hear 19th-century masterpieces in a concert hall, but there’s something in this varied field for every taste — if only one could figure out how to let more people know it. Broadening the number of ways that art music can reach audiences is a worthwhile goal, and contemporary concerts are the favored laboratory for experiments — like KC Jukebox — in varying the format. I’m not sure that standing around the Kennedy Center Atrium for some 90 minutes of music is the ideal way to hear concert music — a lot of Monday’s audience ended up sitting on the floor — but I appreciate the sense of freedom you get when you liberate art-music performance, once in a while, from the concert hall.
And I certainly appreciate a chance to hear a range of young composers showcased at a major venue. The only thing linking the pieces on Monday’s program was the loose theme of work inspired by composers, traditions, and instruments of the past, be it a line of Rameau (in Edmund Finnis’s “In Situ,” five short pieces that departed from phrases by five composers of the past) or a harpsichord in Anna Clyne’s “As Sudden Shut,” the highlight of the evening.
A setting of an Emily Dickinson poem, and part of a larger Dickinson project, Clyne’s piece opened with dark, taffylike, drum-struck chords from contrabassoon, contrabass and cello, and continued to develop this licorice-dark sound world in contrast with the higher, thinner, more metallic timbres of three female vocalists and higher instruments with increasing chaos as the poem, having started by allowing a glimpse through an open door into a world of warmth and order, ultimately shut the protagonist out, buffeted by a tempest of sound.
Bates’s increasingly familiar, agile, sometimes better-than-it-sounds blend of intricate string playing and computer sounds was represented by “Bagatelles for String Quartet and Electronica,” starting with an intriguing blend of slightly off-kilter rhythms in the first movement, “Rough Math,” and easing into the active, bubbling pizzicati and high violin lines of the third movement, “Viscera.”
At the evening’s end, Donnacha Dennehy’s “That the Night Come,” originally written for and recorded by Dawn Upshaw, got a slightly too-resounding reading from the rich-voiced but heavily amplified mezzo Rachel Calloway and the full ensemble. This group, firmly led by the conductor Donato Cabrera, included a number of members of the National Symphony Orchestra, and did yeoman service through a challenging evening. Particular kudos go to the cellist Rachel Young, who played in all five pieces, including a solo turn in “Sit and Dance, for Baroque Cello and Electronics,” an impassioned if slightly unfocused piece by Molly Joyce.
Bates and the Kennedy Center have learned how to work together this year: from a technical standpoint, this was the smoothest and tightest of the three KC Jukebox concerts. After five Bates performances in six days — starting with a chamber performance for the S&R Foundation last Wednesday — Washington may have been suffering from some measure of Bates fatigue; the hall was not as full as it was for the first two KC Jukebox concerts. Still, the experiment is worthwhile; I wouldn’t claim Bates has found a silver bullet for successful new-music presentations, but I’ve enjoyed the series so far, bumps and all, and look forward to seeing what it will offer next year — over five concerts.