Mercury Soul Merges Visual Art with Classical Music and Contemporary Electronica

Forecasting the Doom of Classical Music is its own cottage industry, from cocktail party chatter lamenting the genre's graying audience to statistical evidence that younger recruits would largely rather bump at the club than sit in the symphony hall wondering when to clap. Virtually every American orchestra has embarked on some kind of youth outreach or audience augmentation program, whether that means slashing ticket prices, bringing orchestras to schools, or offering free concerts in the park. But the notion of merging the nightclub demographic with that of the concert hall is largely untouched terrain — and it's what makes this weekend's Mercury Soul event at Mezzanine so tantalizing.

Benjamin Shwartz and Mason Bates.
Benjamin Shwartz and Mason Bates.

"We're superimposing a party on the symphony, and we're going to see what happens," says composer Mason Bates, who as his alter ego DJ Masonic will be one of the evening's main attractions, along with conductor Benjamin Shwartz of the San Francisco Symphony and renowned set designer Anne Patterson. A chamber orchestra will play amid art installations and Patterson's innovative lighting design, DJs will spin electronica between sets, and attendees are free to wander, grab a drink, and clap whenever they damn well please. "This idea came to me when I was thinking about the very rigid environment that classical music has seemed to acquire, which wasn't always the deal," Bates says. The program is as innovative as the environment, emphasizing 20th-century composers like Ligeti and Webern and contemporaries (including Bates himself) over the titans of yore. "A lot of electronica is instrumental, its sonority and rhythm," he says. "So that's Ligeti, but that could be said about Autechre as well." Indeed, audiences for classical composers and progressive British electronica have more in common than most tuxedoed champagne swillers might think.

 
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