Revisiting Bates

by Joshua Roman


Mason Bates, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, and Joshua Roman backstage at Benaroya Hall

That old familiar friend – a piece that already has a life inside of you and is ready to be teased back into the external world. For a cellist, these are usually pieces of very old music: Bach Cello Suites, Concertos by Dvorak or Haydn, Sonatas and Quartets from days of yore.

This time, I get to reignite the flame with a rather new concerto: that special work by my friend Mason Bates. I am so lucky to count wonderful composers among my friends, and to work with them regularly. Last year, Mason wrote his first Cello Concerto for me, and we gave the premiere with the Seattle Symphony. Even by the time of the world premiere, I had given the piece several test runs with pianist Carlos Avila, for small audiences with discerning ears. Now I’ve decided this is a must! I had a similar preparatory experience with “Dreamsongs”, the concerto Aaron Jay Kernis wrote for me the previous year, and on the day of a premiere it makes all the difference to have more comfort, confidence, and a deeper connection with the music.

So pulling the score back out, I had a decision to make. Listen to archival recordings from the performances with Seattle and Columbus? Or rely on memory of what worked and what didn’t? Usually, with a piece that’s already entered the standard repertory, I have a self-imposed rule that listening to other recordings is strictly verboten within a month of a performance. It may be 80% superstition, but I want to be conscious of what makes its way into my interpretation. However, is it any different when the only recordings in existence are my own? If I listen at all, I generally listen to archival recordings fairly soon after the performance to get a sense of whether my intentions come across or not, and try to take notes for later.

An experiment began to take shape: I started by looking at the score as if it was the first time, and began to practice before listening to any recordings. This way, at least I could leave room for any accidental discoveries, which are always fun! Of course, there were a few – opportunities for color changes or subtleties I missed the first time around. Or did I?

Going back, listening to the recordings, it was fun to see what recollections were spot on, and what memories had taken on the subjective hue of emotions surrounding certain moments or performances. Listening to oneself can be a painful process, but the illuminating effect it has is well worth it. There were plenty of sighs of relief on my part, as well as the usual grimacing. Definitely something that I prefer to do alone in the privacy of my own room!

The fact that I had some insight into my own previous interpretations (hued or not) helped me get past my concern about the unseen influence recordings can otherwise have. If anything, it has helped even more as I discover what gestures, colors, and emotions come across in the sound and what is only internal. From now through the time of the last performance of the season, I’ll be listening back to run-throughs, rehearsals, and performances, chipping away at the edges of this particular work of art.

You’ll see in the list below that I’ve chosen to listen to other works by Mason. While I do have certain hesitations regarding listening to a specific piece I’m playing, if I can find other pieces by the same composer, or works that I know have influenced, I find it a good way to absorb more of their style and voice. And of course, being in constant communication with Mason to get ever closer to the heart of his musical soul.

The best part of being with such a new “old friend”, is that I get to introduce so many people to these new sounds for the first time. Long live new music!


Eric Jacobsen and Joshua Roman getting ready for Mason Bates at Greater Bridgeport Symphony.

Joshua performs the Bates Concerto throughout the 15-16 season, beginning Saturday, September 19 with the Greater Bridgeport Symphony under the baton of Eric Jacobsen – check Joshua’s calendar for a city near you!

Stereo is King (whole album)
Violin Concerto with Anne Akiko Meyers, violin