If you’re all Zoomed-out, stressed out, and weary of making contact with the outside world through an electronic device, you might draw some hope from Undistant, being given its U.S. premiere this week by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The 7 1/2-minute piece by California composer Mason Bates sparkles with the same kind of wonder as John Williams winking at the cosmos.
Composed during “challenging times for music and fellowship” — the early part of the pandemic — Undistant was envisioned as “an affirmation of human connection,” Bates writes in an introductory note to the score.
Ironically, it’s only through your laptop (or equivalent device) that you can experience the work, the centerpiece of the orchestra’s Digital Stage concert debuting Thursday.
Laptop here is not just a listening tool, but also an instrument in the creative process. As “played” in this performance by percussionist Tom Blanchard, the laptop’s digital samplings are lightly placed upon the music — a bit scratchy and distanced at first, then becoming the source of a pulsing beat.
But Undistant moves quickly out of the electronic and into warmth, humanity, and the decidedly nondigital character of instruments and their players. Much of the piece feels like it is hung on a repeating chaconne-like structure, its drama building and receding. What’s great about the musical language Bates uses is how emotionally direct it is. It plays a bit with the first three notes of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” — though you have to listen for it — and the piece’s big-screen qualities are incredibly evocative. But what exactly is being evoked?
Bates gives you plenty of leeway. You could accept his stated narrative of emerging from our digital fog into the living company of others. My own thoughts keep returning to the stars. And fairy dust. There’s something celestial in the sweeping gestures of the piano, piccolo, and glockenspiel near the opening. Solos doubled by horn and violin soar. Momentum builds, triumph arrives, and then comes peace. And the listener is let off in a place of contentment. Who today isn’t ready for this kind of emotional journey?
Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads with an effective ebb and flow of drama in Undistant, as he does in bringing out some vivid colors in the program’s opener, Mozart’s Overture to the Magic Flute.
Instrumental colors are the major joy of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2: the floating, beautifully blended sound formed by bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa and flutist Patrick Williams in the slow introduction of the first movement, and later the urgency in the playing of Matsukawa and oboist Philippe Tondre.
The emotional heart of the piece, though, is the second movement, which Nézet-Séguin takes apace. Winds are the stars here also, nimble implements of Beethoven’s power to deliver the listener to parts pastoral. You almost forget that it’s coming to you by way of laptop.
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Digital Stage program of Mason Bates’ Undistant, Mozart, and Beethoven streams June 10 at 8 p.m. through June 17 at 11 p.m. Tickets are $15 or $17. philorch.org.