Composer Mason Bates brings his 'Alternative Energy' to town, with surround sound

Composer Mason Bates: whose Alternate Energy symphony is performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra Thursday through Sunday.

Composer Mason Bates shows every sign of being a classical-music outlander. He looks like a club DJ. The titles of his pieces -- Omnivorous Furniture, for one -- are punk-rock friendly. The music itself sounds so spontaneous it has to be at least partly improvised.

But here's what won't be immediately apparent when Bates and his Alternative Energy symphony arrive at the Kimmel Center for the Philadelphia Orchestra's Thursday-through-Sunday concerts: He labors for years to create that effortlessly playful effect in his music, is praised for his orchestral savvy by none other than Riccardo Muti, and draws on a deep sense of history that goes back centuries before his own 40 years. Something else old-fashioned: he doesn't like listeners to be on their devices while listening to his music. Plus, he coexists on the Philadelphia Orchestra program with Daniil Trifonov playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9.

"I hope to scare the hell out of them," he said by phone from his San Francisco studio. "Joy, surprise, and playing with expectations. ... We don't have enough of that these days. ... I'm trying to create music that's fresh and inevitable. If it has both of those things, it can still surprise you."

No need to worry: Bates' post-minimal music is far too ebullient to cause heart attacks.

Though the Richmond, Va.-raised Bates was born in Philadelphia and is among America's most frequently performed composers, people here may be hearing him for the first time -- despite his having published nearly 40 works since 1999. What looks like overnight fame has been, in his words, "a slow rise" -- one that promises to come to a head this summer when his first opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, is premiered by the Santa Fe Opera.

Whether in opera or in symphony, Bates is a born storyteller. His acclaimed Alternative Energy is a four-movement journey, beginning at the dawn of mass production with Henry Ford and concluding in post-apocalyptic Iceland. "I find that narrative form pushes me into completely wild territory musically," he said. "I'm running with this [approach] because nobody else seems to see the opportunity -- musically. I'm taking the baton from somebody like Berlioz."

As with Hector Berlioz, though, the piece has to hold up purely as music. In Alternative Energy's dark third movement -- subtitled "Xingjiang Province, 2112" referring to a center of China's energy industry -- the music begins with futuristic wastelands suggested by flat but luminous string textures and a Kabuki-ish flute solo that turns melancholy. A modern dance rhythm starts bubbling up from within, alluring in its own way but, as in Ravel's La Valse, spinning into something dark and self-consuming. It's nuclear meltdown time. Such concern for the future isn't just idealistic: Bates is married and the father of two young daughters.

One source of musical wild cards is his use of electronics. The Philadelphia Orchestra will have surround-sound speakers with six channels that Bates, who will be on stage, activates at appropriate moments. "When I'm performing, there's more flexibility with tempos. When I'm not there [the case with many performances], we go to a stereo setup." All that's needed is a download link, a laptop, and, of course, speakers.

Practicality is Bates' contribution to electronics. In the 1980s, Pierre Boulez and his piece Repons pioneered real-time interplay of electronic and acoustic elements, requiring a complex apparatus that may have stymied its performance history. "It's designed for a Department of Defense-sized budget," said Bates. "That's a part of music history that has some tombstones in it."

Yes, Bates has worked as a DJ, but he also has a formal compositional pedigree that began when he was still in his teens in Richmond. Though from a nonmusical family (his physician father was doing a residency at Penn when Bates was born), Bates was drawn to composition, writing a choral work in high school that led to a piece for youth orchestra.

A few years after earning his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, he became Chicago Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence (2010-15) and is now the Kennedy Center composer-in-residence. His most far-reaching influence was composer John Corigliano, with whom he studied and whom he calls the master of integrating disparate ideas into a piece.

Bates goes further. In his piece Auditorium, a prerecorded baroque orchestra makes a ghostly visit to the live orchestra. In that heterogeneous spirit, his Steve Jobs opera is episodic -- not chronological -- with distinct sound worlds for each character. Jobs gets a hyperactive guitar, Steve Wozniak a jazzy saxophone.

The composition process for the Jobs opera has stretched over two-and-a-half years, and Bates admits that examining Jobs' personality has made him reconsider some of his own quirks. 

"As a composer, I'm predisposed toward being a bit of a control freak. And there's one moment between Steve and his wife, Laurene, [in the Mark Campbell libretto] where she says that humans are messy. They aren't 'one button,' " he said.

"That struck close to home," Bates said. "You have a vision of how you want the world to be, and sometimes it doesn't work that way. And then you have to figure out how to live in it. ...

"But I wouldn't read too much into this."

The Philadelphia Orchestra performs "Alternative Energy" Thursday through Sunday at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.