SAN FRANCISCO -- In "The B-Sides," composer Mason Bates hints -- more than hints -- at an infatuation with Isaac Hayes and '70s Blaxploitation film soundtracks. His piece slinks and dodges deliciously through its percolating, electronica-assisted grooviness.

Some folks might wonder why the San Francisco Symphony this week is performing "The B-Sides" alongside Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, which hints -- more than hints -- at his love of Pilgrims' hymns and the distant sounds of bagpipes on the heath.

But why not?

San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. San Francsisco Symphony.
San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. San Francsisco Symphony. ( San Francisco Symphony )

The opening program of the two-week Beethoven and Bates festival at Davies Symphony Hall doesn't strain to make connections between these composers. Why bother? Michael Tilson Thomas simply leads his orchestra through two distant worlds -- they are almost comically distant -- and gives his audience a rascal-ish ear-stretch in the process. As the festival opened Wednesday, there was a sense of "This is how it should be in the concert world," with a great orchestra showing (and enjoying) its command of repertory old and new.


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I'm just guessing that some sort of Isaac Hayes fanaticism lurks behind Bates's piece, which the orchestra commissioned and premiered in 2009. Bates (who is 36, lives in Burlingame and shuttles to the Midwest as a composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) has made a name as the man with two careers. Also a club DJ, he isn't shy about describing his influences as a composer. They run, he has said, from Berlioz to John Adams and Swedish texturalists, from Pink Floyd to Radiohead, and from jazz keyboardist John Medeski to "micro house" techno minimalism.

An artful orchestrator and schemer -- he knows how to move, stealthily, from A to Z and back -- his works drip with delicate atmospherics while prowling through beats and weaving warm harmonies and some convincing melodies into the spaced-out tapestry. All of that is true of "The B-Sides," as is this: It's often hard to tell where Bates' purely acoustic sounds end and where his electronica begins; he is that skillful an integrator of his materials.

Wednesday, hunched over his drum pad and laptop at the back of the orchestra -- in the middle of the percussion section -- Bates coaxed his effects and beats into "Broom of the System," the first of the five movements of "The B-Sides." What did it sound like? Like radio signals and textures that abruptly flare and vanish (very Adams-y), with plump, teasing pizzicato riffs that come and go in the cellos and basses and deceptive stop-go beats that move through the sections and somehow recall "Shaft."

Composer Mason Bates. Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group.
Composer Mason Bates. Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group.

"Aerosol Melody (Hanalei)," the second of the five movements, is all-acoustic. Full of sliding string effects, it paints a breezy and uncrowded landscape with slinky beats that feel luxuriously drowsy -- and made this listener think of Quincy Jones' 1969 album "Walking in Space." How neat that this movement gave way to "Gemini in the Solar Wind," the third movement, in which Bates samples NASA radio transmissions from the 1965 Gemini IV voyage, the one in which astronaut Ed White went blissfully walking in space.

The movement gradually heats up with blooming fanfares -- very Adams-y again, though over the top with galactic John Williams, too -- and that's all I will give away about "The B-Sides." (The 22-minute work is being recorded this week for the orchestra's SFS Media label. The orchestra also will record Bates' "Liquid Interface" during next week's program, and his "Alternative Energy" during a third week of "Beethoven and Bates" coming in September.)

Will "The B-Sides" stand the test of time? Who knows? But why not enjoy it now?

After intermission, Tilson Thomas led a straightforward performance of Symphony No. 7: setting reasonable tempos, repeating the exposition of the first movement, enjoying the ride. It wasn't a goose-bump performance, but it was sonically rich; the strings and winds sounded especially great. The Allegretto was regal (and extra-striking with its low-string earthiness) and the Scherzo kept melting between ferocity and repose, a pleasure. Throughout the performance, acting principal timpanist Alex Orfaly was an exciting and exacting presence.

The program began with a couple of Beethoven rarities: His two Romances (in G major and F major) for Violin and Orchestra, featuring concertmaster Alexander Barantschik. With their shadowy charms, these early works bear the mark of Mozart. Wednesday, the F major Romance was most charming: Barantschik (not yet comfortable during the G major opener) was nimble and honey-toned as the orchestra fell under the spell of the work's gently rocking motion. It felt like peace, or an afternoon spent beneath a shady tree, alone with one's thoughts.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin.

'Beethoven and Bates' festival
with San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Mason Bates, electronica
Through: Jan. 18
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $15-$156; 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org