Bathgate, Moore cross musical great divide in Western Mass.
NORTH ADAMS — Head to the Berkshires this weekend for some orchestral music and you have some options. You can catch “Velvet,” a piano-cello duet by Australian composer Kate Moore, in a Tanglewood Music Center concert on Sunday. Or you can catch “Velvet,” a piece for nine cellos by Moore, at the irreverent Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival at Mass MoCA on Friday.
Yes, we’re talking about the same piece — but in two radically different arrangements, at two very different festivals. This happenstance of scheduling suits perfectly the commingling of cultures and viewpoints found in the work of Moore and her frequent collaborator, cellist Ashley Bathgate.
“It’s a privilege to be able to work with living composers anyway, regardless of how long you’ve known them,” says Bathgate, seated on a patio at Mass MoCA on a recent sunny afternoon. “It’s a whole other thing to find someone who is willing to write for you — as a cellist and as a person. . . . It’s a very personal thing.”
One fruit of their work together is Moore’s Cello Concerto, which Bathgate premiered last year at the Gaudeamus Festival in the Netherlands. Another is “Stories for Ocean Shells,” an hourlong collection of pieces by Moore (almost entirely featuring Bathgate alone) pegged for an album release next year. Bathgate will perform the full suite for just the second time in public in a gallery recital on Friday.
Moore, 35, was born in Australia but immigrated to the Netherlands in her early 20s. She’s a rising star in the new-music world, drawing from her skills as a musician and an artist for daring pieces that often include a programmatic element. “Dances & Canons,” a disc of Moore’s piano music played by Saskia Lankhoorn, was issued recently on the prestigious ECM label.
Bathgate, 30, is native of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She too is a rising star in the same musical milieu, having joined the lineup of the prestigious Bang on a Can All-Stars in 2009 after positively crushing her first professional audition.
They met at one of Bathgate’s very first rehearsals with the All-Stars; Moore had been commissioned to write for the ensemble.
Bathgate is now in town with Bang on a Can’s annual Mass MoCA residency, working with students (known as fellows) and performing an assortment of innovative pieces by living composers — in gallery recitals, after-hours jams, and occasionally onstage.
Meanwhile, Moore, an alumnus of the BoaC summer institute, is currently a composing fellow at the TMC, which displays great interest in mid-20th century work, but includes solid doses of music by guys with names like Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn.
“There’s a depth in her music that is uniquely hers,” says Michael Gandolfi, coordinator of the composition program at TMC and a curator of its Festival of Contemporary Music, of Moore. “There’s a way in which her music has a tremendous ability to just transport a listener into this place — kind of like you’re taken along this journey that’s almost trancelike, in a way.”
Bathgate and Moore each received a traditional musical education in the realm of European classical music. Each also has found a voice outside of that tradition. The double programming of “Velvet” — among the pieces in “Ocean Shells,” and on a TMC program that includes selections by Beethoven and Schubert — marks out a sort of borderland where musical viewpoints can intersect.
They describe “Ocean Shells” as a “musical picture book.” Each piece reflects a story from Moore’s experiences traveling the world. It’s also a sort of scrapbook of Bathgate and Moore’s friendship; photos, drawings, and sketches related to the music and the stories that inspired them will accompany the album. “The main concept is just that it’s storytelling,” Bathgate says. “I didn’t want to just put my [usual] bio in it, I wanted to write something where if someone reads it they’re going to know a lot about me as a person, as a human being. Yes, they want to hear music but they want to see who you are, to have a sense of it and feel that exchange.”
With BoaC fellows buzzing around her on the patio as some start in on an outdoor dinner, Bathgate mimes playing a cello as she describes her partner’s compositional techniques. Though both she and Moore are happy to drop into music-nerd shop talk to describe their shared interests, each cites the other’s ability to complement virtuosic technique with plenty of heart.
“In a general sense,” Moore says by telephone, “I write the [musical] notes and I send them to her. But for me, it’s much more about being a little bit like a portrait painter: I try to capture her essence and personality through the music. To me, it really does feel like a portrait, something about the way she plays that I retain, and makes me learn what to write.”
Though Moore’s name ultimately goes on the finished score, she says Bathgate makes a key contribution to the work simply through her enthusiasm.
“If I say, Ashley, I want to write a cello concerto for you, her response would be, ‘Oh my God, that would be amazing, yes, please,’” Moore says. “That’s a really simple interaction, but it’s also incredibly rare. It’s sort of an impossible project — but because of that attitude, it happens.”