Tonight’s rich offering opened with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major with Sergey Khachatryan, the young Armenian, as soloist. The orchestra, under the baton of Cristian Măcelaru, took some time to hit its stride, its pace a fraction belaboured, its lyricism a little on the stolid side, the tonal contrasts not as crisp as might be. But Khachatryan entered, assured and mature, thoughtfully allowing the melodic digressions to develop. Particularly notable, and attractive, was his sensitive craftsmanship throughout: he knew just when to hold back, or hold on, lingering, and when to press forward. It was Beethoven taken with liberties – perhaps too much so for some tastes, but I liked what he drew out. A touching transition after the cadenza brought the first movement to a satisfying close. He delivered the Larghetto with grace and spaciousness, weaving its decorations with care. The energetic Rondo followed, though I confess that this did not seize the imagination as much.

After the interval, three works followed, all linked by the theme of water. Sibelius’ penultimate tone poem The Oceanides, written in 1914, conjures up the daughters of the sea-gods and was built up into a sustained climax of sound. Liquid Interface took over the stage next. Mason Bates is the composer in residence here at the Kennedy Center, and this 2006 symphony is an attractive evocation of sound – natural and electronic. Water is his theme, and that puts him in a long line of composers for whom the fluidity of this source of life has been fertile for musical translation. There on the stage, near the percussion, with his Apple ipad, Bates brings us very definitely into the 21st century. The sounds of primeval storms carries us to a remote musical age in Glaciers Calving which Bates describes in terms of “huge blocks of sound drifting”. And thus it sounds. The soundscape is audibly thawed for the Scherzo Liquido which focuses on droplets of rain, as small as the first movement is large. This movement was texturally delightful, playful and fun – like real rain only more ‘popped’. Crescent City, the longest part of the work, follows and is an evocation of Hurricane Katrina. Torn-up jazzy interjections and cheeky brasses are in evidence until the flood comes and destroys them all. What happens indeed when the apocalypse comes? The orchestra were buried under a terrifying  electronic storm, and then all is silent, until a small scratchy recording of jazz is heard, and life is restored. This segues nicely into the last movement, On the Wannsee, where Bates has used ambient sounds of nature overheard on a dock in Germany, to evoke a carefree idyll of lazy summer days, with electronic beats to pump it up. Smetana’s well-loved Vltava from Má vlast brought the evening to a close, catching once again the spirit of the meandering, unpredictable element of nature.  

I was particularly struck by the breath of the chosen works tonight, impressed also that the conventional order of putting the ‘new music’ first (which shows a certain lack of confidence that people will stay into the second half to hear it), was reversed, and that we were treated to Bates’ alluring symphony in a fitting context. New music sometimes suffers for being place in quotation marks, as it were, tacked on, unrelated to the rest. Tonight, the three works fit together snugly.