Mason Bates wrote a new piece about war and money, and Thursday night I thought a lot about his world premiere of the National Symphony Orchestra. I wondered about the role of what you might call documentary sound in music; Bates, the composer of the Kennedy Center in residence, recorded the sound of the money produced in the United States Mint and the sound of explosions at Camp Pendleton, the base of the Marine Corps in California, and incorporated those sounds into his three-movement piece. . Those sounds, I wondered, do they really mean something independent of their context, even if you do not know what they are?
In the case, however, I'm not sure that "Art of War" actually deserves this kind of deep thought. I'm not even sure what he's trying to be. It is a melodic, guided, expressive piece that makes its documentary aspects very clear (to include the words in the Mint section) in a declaration on war that is trivial in its familiarity. We have the first section similar to a newsreel, led by the chug-chug of manufacturing money. We have the second nostalgic section, which juxtaposes American and Iraqi folk music, suspended in an unearthly agar of biting notes and peaks. And we have the third martial section, with its recorded explosions soaring that vibrate in your bones like the bass in a nightclub, and military rhythms that require the orchestra to stamp.
It is certainly an attractive piece, in its own way – indeed, I have rarely seen an enthusiastic NSO audience of a new job. It was just confusing to see a talented composer attack his considerable musical talents (that second section, with his combination of trombone and flute and contrabass silent in the lamentation of the Iraqi melody against the clumsiness of the "American" solo violin, was particularly strong) to a statement that was neither original nor risky. Bates is not alone in his generation, in a country where military conscription is not required, in creating wide-eyed coveralls along the lines of "War is Bad!": "Silent Night" by Kevin Puts and "Soldier Songs" by David T. Little, another two 40-somethings, are other examples. Both of these works have been very popular, and perhaps even Bates will be. After all, condemning war is something that everyone can get, especially in today's climate.
Musically, though, it was a positive evening. The orchestra played the piece well and warmly applauded it, and seemed to have been adapted to their strengths. And Bates's work had an eminently expressive counterweight in Mahler's First Symphony, which Gianandrea Noseda conducted with energy, rebound and, especially in the first movement, a sort of beauty and sweetness that I'm coming to see as his best side, a sort of intimate musical brand.
I can not say how the orchestra and Noseda, now in his second year as a music director, are really going to agree at this point, but I'm increasingly a fan of what I see of their chemistry. With the NSO, Noseda seems more relaxed, without the ambitious leading edge I've heard from him with other orchestras. In Mahler, this led to a fluidity that combined the strong contrasts of the first movement in one coherent gesture, and a rustic lustful rusticity in the second movement, enhancing the gingivosity of the cello. In the final movement, the whole section of the horn rose in a gilded wall, their sound audibly guided by the golden sound of the main Abel Pereira, before the whole thing faded into silence. C & # 39; was the immediacy and power of the game without an excess of self-consciousness. He was a handsome Mahler and offered a good show at the Bates – if only there had been another for the orchestra to perform.
The program is repeated Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.