It might have been a first for a major American orchestra. The audience at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco thinned out Thursday night after the work by a living composer and before the Beethoven warhorse – not the other way around. The concert was the second program in the oddly conceived “Beethoven and Bates” festival, a follow up, possibly, to the equally peculiar Mendelssohn–Adès festival a few months ago.

Mason Bates © Todd Rosenberg
Mason Bates
© Todd Rosenberg

Mason Bates, a young Bay Area composer who performs under the moniker DJ Masonic at after-hours club gigs, is one of the more intriguing figures in the burgeoning alt-classical movement in the United States. His electronica-infused tone poem Liquid Interface wound up being the surprising centerpiece of a concert otherwise dominated by Beethoven’s Mass in C.

With Michael Tilson Thomas at the helm and the composer perched behind his laptop at the rear of the orchestra, Liquid Interface unfolds as a shifting wall of sound that flows from the crackling recordings of fracturing glaciers to atmospheric harmonies; from four-on-the-floor beats to jazzy big band; from electronic bleeps and bloops to shimmering horns.

The massive orchestra, barely able to fit on the stage, was only barely able to match the volume of the singular Bates’ sound system. It is the blend of genres, of course, which gives Bates’ music its novelty, but it is also its greatest liability. Musically, his two stylistic worlds blend into something cohesive and utterly unique. But sonically, acoustically, they tend to clash. Too often, the loudspeakers teetering seven feet above the orchestra that piped the composer’s samples and beats into the audience blew away the poor unamplified instruments below them. Bates, himself, did not feel like a part of the orchestra. Rather, he was a separate entity playing along.

Still, it is hard to fault the composer too much for this. Blending acoustic instruments and electronic is a tough nut to crack. The Kronos Quartet gets around it by amplifying themselves, while a John Adams opera might treat an electronic keyboard just like any other instrument by placing a single amplifier in the pit of the orchestra. By keeping the forces separate, Bates in effect declares that they are equal, even equivalent beasts. Not surprising for a composer who has described the orchestra as an “acoustic synthesizer”. But more importantly, the purpose is to exude energy, which is exactly what the electronics did.

If Bates managed to outshine Beethoven, it was not because of a poor Beethoven performance. Although the overture to the rarely performed incidental music from King Stephen that opened the concert was little more than space-filler, it was still flawless. As was the Mass in C, into which the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, under the direction of Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin, breathed exceptional exuberance. The phenomenal dynamic range on display was in stark contrast to the electronic thump of Liquid Interface, which largely adhered to two dynamics: very loud and moderately quiet.

The mass does not cast a bright spotlight on the soloists, but soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, tenor William Burden, and bass Shenyang all sang their parts just right, allowing themselves to merge with the ensemble. Only during the Benedictus did the soloists truly stand out. And even then, it was the quality of the quartet unit itself rather than its individuals that made it magical.

Unfortunately, after the pulsating energy of Liquid Interface, the Mass, as majestic as it is, was an underwhelming climax to the night. The many young people who left at intermission experienced a more satisfying concert arc. It was, in a way, a symbol of the identity crisis facing the symphony – as well as most American classical ensembles. A composer with feet in two worlds can draw in a new audience, but the old standards that more established patrons love still pay the bills. We might view nights like these as growing pains, where still fantastic music is delivered somewhat awkwardly.