These days, the venues DJs play aren’t limited to clubs, bars and warehouse parties. You’ll also find them — armed with laptops and turntables — in restaurants, art galleries and a variety of urban outfitters. You’ll also find one at the Kennedy Center: namely DJ Masonic, better known as Mason Bates, the venue’s 39-year-old composer-in-residence. Bates, at one point the second-most-performed living composer in America, is best known for bringing electronic music into the orchestra, which he has continued to do with his KC Jukebox events.
On Monday night, Bates presented the latest edition of Mercury Soul, a project he founded in 2008 with conductor Benjamin Shwartz and visual designer Anne Patterson that aims to present “classical music in new ways to a new generation.” To that end, Bates and the Kennedy Center turned the Atrium into a luxurious lounge, bathed in blue light and appointed with multiple stages for what was billed as a “post-classical rave.”
The evening began with Bates behind the decks, dropping down-tempo beats that wouldn’t sound out of place at a Thievery Corporation gig. He was accompanied by special guest Daniel Bernard Roumain, a composer and violinist with a similarly experimental bent. Roumain cross-pollinates classical with hip-hop and rock the same way Bates combines classical and electronica. He plays his violin like an electric guitar, picking its strings and stomping on effects pedals as he solos like a rock god.
Soon, members of the orchestra took one of the other two stages, accompanying Bates and Roumain as the music “cross-faded” to their realm. First up was an all-female string quartet that played a series of Roumain’s compositions, including “Hip Hop Etudes,” that recall the samples and melodies of the titular genre.
Then it was back to the DJ stage; monitors let the audience know that the next classical set would begin in about 15 minutes. And so it went for the next two hours: a DJ-plus-violinist set, followed by the orchestra and back again. A 12-piece ensemble played Stravinsky’s playfully suspenseful “Concertino” and John Adams’s frenetic Chamber Symphony No. 1, violinist Alexandra Osborne dazzled with a solo sonata, and a three-piece percussion ensemble performed Bates’s experimental “Stereo Is King.”
In Chamber Symphony No. 1, Adams connected the dots between the “hyperactive, acrobatic” scores by expressionist composer Arnold Schönberg and those that Carl Stalling wrote for classic cartoons. That’s the same type of dot-connecting Bates did with “Stereo Is King,” which contrasts Thai gongs and Tibetan prayer bowls with dance-music beats.
But there was a disconnect to Mercury Soul that couldn’t be solved, no matter how clean the cross-fade between DJ and orchestra. The audience was entreated to dance to standard-issue house music and pedestrian pop fare (“Billie Jean,” Prince’s “Controversy”), but only for 15 minutes at a time. Meanwhile, Roumain shredded on his violin — impressive and novel, certainly, but not particularly conducive to dancing. There were also conflicting codes of conduct — the audience didn’t know exactly when to applaud, clap along to the beat or talk among themselves.
Pairing the orchestra with electronic music and bringing both to new audiences is a noble pursuit, and Bates and the Kennedy Center should be applauded. But for all his talent and foresight as a composer, Bates’s shortcomings as a DJ hamstring the experiment. If DJs can perform in our most esteemed venues, shouldn’t those venues book the Stravinsky or Adams of DJ-ing?