“The orchestra,” declares Mason Bates, “is one of mankind’s greatest creations.”
Spoken, you might say, like a true composer of symphonies and operas — a Grammy-winning composer at that. But for Bates, creator of “Philharmonia Fantastique” which will be presented by New West Symphony on March 4 and 5, an orchestra is more than a means of making beautiful music.
“It’s the diversity that is so fascinating and incredible,” he says, “a diversity of instruments, technologies and people who come together, to breathe as one organ, to create something beautiful that touches an audience.”
Such “unity in diversity” is the essence of “Philharmonia Fantastique,” a multimedia concerto that combines live action with high-tech animation. Each orchestral section (or “family”) is showcased, with the help of a curious sprite who flies through the instruments of the orchestra to explore the fundamental connections between music, sound, performance, creativity and technology.
“The orchestra is one of mankind’s greatest creations.”
“Philharmonia Fantastique” combines Bates’ music with the artistic skills of Oscar-winning director/sound designer Gary Rydstrom, and Oscar-nominated animation director Jim Capobianco. As performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Edwin Outwater, the work recently received a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Classical Recording.
“Our engineers achieved an extraordinary result amidst the most challenging recording environment,” says Bates, referring to the height of the COVID pandemic in spring 2020 when recording took place.
“We had to record the instrumental families separately,” he continues, “but doing so actually gave us amazing control in the studio later. And the collaborative process illustrated the piece’s theme of ‘unity from diversity’ — the orchestra as a model of different materials and technologies fusing into one beautiful super-instrument. It was a miraculous achievement, and the team did a phenomenal job.”
And the audience’s response to “Philharmonia Fantastique” — whose premiere was delayed by COVID for a year — has been overwhelmingly favorable. Multi-Oscar-winning composer John Williams has called it “a truly magnificent achievement. In the art of marrying music with animation, ‘Philharmonia Fantastique’ is the biggest step forward since ‘Fantasia’ itself.”
The finished product, says Bates, is not only “the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on,” but is “remarkably close” to what he had initially envisioned: “an exuberant piece that would fly inside instruments while they playing, infectiously kinetic and fun. All those things worked out and is a tribute to those who collaborated on it.
“When we were drawing up the script, I had this image of a little girl going into her school music room to learn about the instruments. But Jim Capobianco said, ‘Let’s do something magical,’ and the human ‘explorer’ became a sprite, which allowed us the freedom to do what we wanted. It’s a virtuostic bit of animation.”
Moreover, “it is a piece for any age,” says Bates, who is delighted that New West Symphony’s presentation of “Philharmonia Fantastique” will include performances for elementary school students on March 7 in Oxnard and March 8 in Thousand Oaks.
“There is a childlike wonder in this piece that we all can identify with,” says Bates, “and New West is presenting it in a perfect way, concerts for symphonic audiences and youth.”
Perhaps, he adds, some of those children will be inspired to pursue music, much as he did while attending St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia. He was a piano student who began composing choral and instrumental works before his teen years, and credits his middle school piano teacher, Hope Armstrong Erb, for nurturing his dream.
“There is a childlike wonder in this piece that we all can identify with.”
“She heard me play these wild rhapsodies,” he recalls, “and she told me, ‘If you want to get better as a composer, you need to get better as a pianist. Practice piano for an hour a day every day, and I’ll mentor you as composer.’ There are many mentors behind every artist, and Hope is someone I stay in touch with to this day.”
Bates’ earned a Bachelor’s in English Literature and a Master’s of Music in Composition from the Columbia University-Juilliard School program, and a Ph.D in Composition from UC Berkeley, where he studied at its Center for New Music and Audio Technologies.
During that time, his interest in combining electronic and symphonic music was nurtured while working as a DJ and techno artist at clubs and lounges in San Francisco, and he cofounded Mercury Soul, a San Francisco-based non-profit that presents club shows combining classical music and DJ sets in clubs.
Perhaps not what one would expect of a member at the Composition faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, or one who served as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ first composer-in-residence.
But this is someone who refers to his music as a revival of 19th-century narrative symphonies using 21st-century sounds. “I’ve always been attracted to an exuberant mix of new and old,” Bates says, “and creating a musical vehicle with a gleaming surface, but also with that solid orchestral structure underneath the hood.”
That’s one reason Bates is happy that New West Symphony’s presentation reunites him with NWS Music Director Michael Christie, with whom he shared a 2019 Grammy for Best Opera Recording for “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.”
“You can hear New West Symphony and Michael Christie do classical pieces as well as mine and other contemporary works, and that’s a great example of the orchestra never stopping its evolution,” Bates says. “We all love Palestrina and Bach, right? And the first performance I saw after seclusion was San Francisco Opera’s production of ‘Tosca,’ which I enjoyed. But we all love to be challenged, too.”
And that means embracing the evolution of music, instrumentation, technology and, especially, people — as Mason Bates has done, in a way that is collaborative, original and exciting.
New West Symphony will be performing Bates’ “Philharmonia Fantastique” as part of its “Symphonie Fantastique” concert on March 4th & 5th.