Selby and Richard McRae Foundation ASTRAL EDGE

7:28 PM, Saturday, April 13, 2019
Thalia Mara Hall


A warp-drive thrill ride straddles classical music and electronica with Mason Bates’ Mothership, Debussy’s Nocturnes, and Gustav Holst’s The Planets in a starry soundscape of cool.  Get ready to go on to the next dimension! 

Featuring the Women of The Mississippi Chorus & the Mississippi College Singers. 

Cash bar in the lobby prior to the concert and during intermission.

Free pre-concert lecture by Dr. Timothy Coker on the Mezzanine, 6:45-7:15p


Concert sponsored by a generous gift from


MASON BATES: Mothership

Mason Bates is one of America’s hottest young composers. In 2018 he was named “Musical America’s Composer of the Year”, and just this past February the recording of his new opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs won the 2019 Grammy for “Best Opera Recording”. However, Mason Bates is not your typical composer. He bills himself as both a composer and DJ, and tonight you will probably hear your first symphony for orchestra and electronica. Bates crosses stylistic boundaries without trepidation, and he is continually exploring ways in which classical music can blend with contemporary culture (and vice-versa). He regularly appears in sold-out clubs as DJ Masonic, where he “transforms commercial clubs into exciting hybrid musical events.”

     From the composer’s website:

‘This energetic opener imagines the orchestra as a mothership that is ‘docked’ by several visiting soloists, who offer brief but virtuosic riffs on the work’s thematic material over action-packed electro-acoustic orchestral figuration. The piece follows the form of a scherzo with double trio (as found in, for example, the Schumann Symphony No. 2). Symphonic scherzos historically play with dance rhythms in a high-energy and appealing manner, with the ‘trio’ sections temporarily exploring new rhythmic areas. Mothership shares a formal connection with the symphonic scherzo, but is brought to life by thrilling sounds of the 21st century — rhythms of modern-day techno in place of waltz rhythms, for example.’ 

The premiere of this work on March 20, 2011 was a remarkable event, viewed by almost 2 million people on YouTube. It took place at the Sydney Opera House in Australia, performed by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas. The YouTube Symphony was formed in 2008 through open auditions hosted by YouTube, pulling together musicians from around the world. Improvising soloists for the premiere of Bates’ work were auditioned the same way and included electric guitar, electric bass, guzhēng (Chinese zither), and violin. Each soloist improvised riffs on the main theme of the one-movement work, layered over with electronic sounds and techno beats.


Debussy hated being called an “Impressionist,” but the name stuck for lack of a better one, to describe music that captures momentary impressions in sound, not unlike the art of Monet, Cassatt, Pisarro, and others. “I am [beginning] to believe more and more that music is not, in its essence, a thing which can flow within a rigorous and traditional form. It is composed of colors and rhythmic moments of time. All the rest is a fraud, invented by cold-blooded imbeciles riding on the masters’ backs.” Debussy’s goal in Nuages (“Clouds”) was to find ways to illustrate in sound “immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white.” Fêtes (“Festivals”) is one of Debussy’s most literally descriptive pieces. Debussy wrote that “Fêtes give us the vibrating, dancing rhythm of the atmosphere with sudden flashes of light. There is also the episode of [a] procession (dazzling fantastic vision), which passes through and becomes merged with its blending of music, and luminous dust participating in the cosmic rhythm.” Sirènes “depicts the sea and itscountless rhythms and presently, amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on.” Debussy’s wordless female chorus of Sirens builds on a two-note motive to seduce the listener, just as they tried to seduce Odysseus, tied to the mast in Homer’s legendary tale.


GUSTAV HOLST: The Planets      

Holst’s father was a musician (a piano teacher, organist and choirmaster), and his great-grandfather once gave harp lessons to the Imperial Grand Duchess of St. Petersburg, after she immigrated to England. Gustav studied piano and violin when he was young and later took up the trombone, playing in the Scottish Orchestra for a time. He went to the Royal College of Music, studying with Charles Villiers Stanford, the distinguished composer and pedagogue, who also taught Ralph Vaughan Williams, Holst’s friend and contemporary. But he had a hard time making a living as a musician and eventually took a teaching position at the St. Paul School for Girls, where he stayed for most of his life. He was a dedicated teacher who hated textbooks and exams, and used creative methods that today we would call “experiential learning.” For example, he would make his first-year harmony students compose a round their first day of class, and then practice singing it for the rest of the hour. He was so dedicated to teaching that it took almost every hour of his time. He would squirrel away composing time on weekends, locking himself up in his soundproof studio at St. Paul’s. It took him more than two full years to complete The Planets, working in this piecemeal way. Although most audiences know Holst only from one work, The Planets, he was much more than a one-hit wonder, and his interests ranged far and wide.

In his twenties, Holst became so fascinated by Hindu philosophy that he enrolled in University College London to study Sanskrit so he could do his own translations. Out of this deep study came four hymns, set to texts from the Rig Veda, as well as an opera, Savriti, based on a story in the 4th-century Mahabharata. He also composed numerous choral and vocal works, including a fascinating Hymn of Jesus, for chorus and orchestra set to Gnostic texts and the Acts of St. John. Holst also became interested in the English folksong tradition and promoted it tirelessly. Michael Tippett, William Walton, and Benjamin Britten all cite him as a huge influence. One of Holst’s great strengths was his ability to pare things down to their essentials. Conductor Malcolm Sargent tells us that Holst admired the music of Ravel for its clarity and that after completing a work, he would go through it mercilessly with an eraser, erasing any notes he thought were not absolutely necessary. Sometimes this could include an entire melodic line. His daughter Imogen tells us that he “never could understand slovenly workmanship” and “though his music dwells in mystical regions, it is never indefinite or shadowy.”

We can hear many composers’ influences in this work, from Stravinsky to Wagner, to Debussy, but its generating force is Holst’s interest in astrology. These are not the astronomical planets, but the astrological ones, with all their accompanying symbolism.

MARS, THE BRINGER OF WAR – The first movement Holst composed; one can hear the influence in John Williams’ Star Wars right away, but this one is built on a relentless five-pulsemeter, with a col legno battuta instruction to the strings where bows are turned upside down to strike the strings (first heard in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique), and create other stirring effects.

VENUS, THE BRINGER OF PEACE – Gently oscillating, bittersweet harmonies, soft dynamics, yet with an undercurrent that is never quite settled.

MERCURY, THE WINGED MESSENGER – In the practice of astrology, Mercury is a “thinker.” Holst’s Mercury is in the form of a scherzo (“joke”), constantly changing and, well, “mercurial.”

JUPITER, THE BRINGER OF JOLLITY – A celebration full of merry, catchy tunes, including one Holst later set to words, creating the English patriotic anthem, “I Vow to Thee, My Country.”

SATURN, THE BRINGER OF OLD AGE – The inevitability of life’s end and the slow suffering that aging brings; slow, alternating dissonant chords.

URANUS, THE MAGICIAN – Often compared to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas (from 1897), “Uranus” opens with an ominous brass fanfare, followed by a pair of tunes that “careen through the orchestra in constantly-changing patterns.”

NEPTUNE, THE MYSTIC – Here Holst draws on Debussy and the wordless female chorus of Sirènes. This is an ending that never ends. In the score Holst writes, “This bar is to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance.” The effect is, in the words of Adrian Boult, “an infinite vision of timeless eternity.”

Concert Calendar

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