What happens when you take the experience of a rock concert, a night out at the symphony, and a fuse them together with electronic music? Simple: you get Mercury Soul. The project is the brainchild of Chicago Symphony Orchestra Composer Mason Bates (also known as DJ Masonic), conductor Benjamin Shwartz, and director/designer Anne Patterson. With previous performances in Chicago, Miami, and San Francisco, each show has been redesigned to compliment the space as well as the symphonic ensemble that is performing. Eschewing the rigid restrictions that organized seats in a concert hall provide, the latest installment of this unique concert series was recently held at Metro. The venue’s open space allowed the audience to meander freely and not be confined to one area all night, much like at a rock concert or in a dance club. An open-mind, love of music, and passion for the arts was all that was needed for any person to have an enjoyable experience at this soirée.
The show was essentially split up into several performance pieces that alternated between the main stage and two side shows. When one ended, the audience would shift and huddle around the next performing group. The loose vibe translated into a very open environment that kind of made everyone feel like they were the boss. If you were not enjoying a particular segment, you could step back, grab a drink, and observe the art installations. And with classical music and electronic music colliding at this event, people from opposite sides of the spectrum were convening to have an enjoyable experience. This was the area where that passion for the arts and open-mind came in handy the most. Not many people have dabbled in fusing the two genres together but as music moves forward, and artists attempt new things, it’s only natural to assume we will see the two come together. On this night however, they were served up separately. Performing compositions by Anna Clyne, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Magnus Lindberg, the symphony dazzled the audience with their musical prowess. Lead by Shwartz, their performance appeared effortless and sounded flawless. The timbre among the flutes, strings, and percussive instruments was very strong and provided some very colorful moments (the lights may have also had something to do with it). The overall theme was a bit darker however, with minor chords playing a major role throughout the evening. The audience was respectful of the situation as well, quieting down for these performances and got livelier when the DJ’s got up on the decks. The pieces they performed were elegant, understated, and quite moving.
As soon as the main stage quieted down, the show continued with performances from Justin Reed, DJ Striz, and DJ Masonic. Reed spun a classic brand of house music that hearkened back to the 90’s where the tempo was a bit higher than is seen in clubs today. Occasionally trumpeter Thomas Madeja would jump in and lay some lines on top of the organic beats to accompany them ever so subtly. The pairing proved to be successful judging by the crowd’s enthusiastic response. After they finished, the crowd shifted over to the other side of the venue to watch percussionists Cynthia Yeh, Jacob Nissly, and Ian Ding perform Iannis Xenakis’ “Ohko.” The trio showed off their chops and created a very powerful dynamic in the room, using space and volume to their advantage. The final performer of the evening was Chicago DJ/producer Kate Simko, who was also debuting her new live PA and AV show. She performed all her own original tracks and was also able to control the visualizations at the same time. Her beats were a bit more contemporary, with a slower stripped-down approach compared to the other DJ’s on the night. Borrowing more elements from electronica and deep house, her tracks were not quite as easily accessible at first; they were a bit more reserved compared to the ones her counter parts provided earlier in the evening. The whole set came off a little uneven, the strongest moments coming when her funky bass lines shined and owned the room. At times it felt like the music too restrained, and not enough was happening. Simko hovered over controller for much of the show and did not go near her synthesizer as much as she normally does. If she will continue to perform these live AV sets, she must find a healthy balance between the music and the visuals.
Overall, the evening proved to be quite rewarding and made for a very enjoyable experience. The audience was attentive, respectful, and generally enthusiastic about what was happening. This created a very warm and friendly atmosphere where ideas could flow throughout the room. By removing seating and giving the audience the ability to roam, this event has potential to attract a younger audience that might be turned off by the rigid constraints that come with a night at the symphony (let’s face it, young people just want to get up and dance). By combining the best elements of a rock show, dance club, and symphony, they have created something that defies boundaries. With the next show, it would be nice to see the electronic elements come together with the symphonic elements and perform together for at least one portion of the show. Separating the two gives the them the opportunity to showcase their strengths. But how awesome would it be to watch a conductor lead a DJ in his ensemble? With each event evolving from the next, it’s only a matter of time before it happens.