American Mavericks I

The San Francisco Symphony’s American Mavericks series I’ve been attending these last few days has been one of the great concert experiences I’ve had. Music which I’ve been listening to on LP and CD for years is coming thrillingly to life in front of large and really appreciative audiences. Knowing how unlikely it is that I’ll ever hear this music live again just redoubles the value of the experience. Knowing, too, just how much really demanding music the Symphony is playing in these concerts, in such a short span of time, one can’t help but admire the dedication (and stamina!) of Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra’s musicians, who I know are putting in some long hours right now.

I would like to share a few thoughts about the music I’ve been enjoying. Warning: this blog entry, and possibly a couple more to come, are possibly for music nerds only, although I’d like to think that some non-nerds might be provoked to check out some of the music on YouTube or iTunes or elsewhere.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Aaron Copland’s Orchestral Variations, his 1957 orchestration of the 1930 Piano Variations, opened the concert. The piano original is one of the seminal works of the early twentieth century. Not long ago I attended a recital by the wonderful pianist Simone Dinnerstein, and she led off with the Piano Variations. I was seated in the front row, practically inside her Steinway, and the impact of the music from close range was visceral. Some of that pure force is softened somewhat, for me at least, in Copland’s orchestration. I love the slow central variation, with its oboe solo and percussive rumblings, and one can’t deny the force of some of the more aggressive variations. It was also interesting to hear that Michael Tilson Thomas had worked with Mr. Copland on expanding the latter’s relatively lean orchestration somewhat. There is a soft spot in my heart for the Orchestral Variations from years past – as there is for other relative Copland obscurities like the Nonet for Strings, the incredible Piano Fantasy, and the Symphonic Ode – since Copland was one of the composers I explored in some depth as a teenager newly obsessed with classical music.

Also dating from my early years of classical music fandom is the work of Lou Harrison. The Concerto for Organ and Percussion Orchestra is one of Harrison’s more clangorous works, and delightfully so. He uses tone clusters inspired by the works of his teacher and friend Henry Cowell – the organist Paul Jacobs actually had a couple of small wooden implements he used for this purpose. Melodic modes in the manner of Indonesia and Greece are heard, as Harrison contrasts mostly untuned percussion and a small ensemble (piano, vibraphone, etc.) of tuned instruments. While this isn’t among Harrison’s most ingratiating or overtly melodic works, it makes quite an impact. It has grandeur, and beauty (the short “Canons and Choruses” movement, which sounds practically like a transcription of an Indonesian gamelan piece, is exquisite – find it at about 5:51 in this video), and I love it, as I do practically all of Harrison’s music.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I want to put my thoughts on Charles Ives’s monumental Concord Sonata, and Henry Brant’s equally monumental orchestration of it in A Concord Symphony – which was the second half of this program – into a separate article.

A Harrison-related addendum: last night, I was privileged to see Eva Soltes’s long-anticipated documentary Lou Harrison: A World of Music, and I have to admit to having teared up several times during this very affectionate tribute. Having read Leta Miller and Frederic Lieberman’s biography of a few years ago (Lou Harrison: Composing a World, now updated as Composing a World: Lou Harrison, Musical Wayfarer), and collected recordings of Harrison’s music since I first encountered it some thirty years ago, I knew the story of his life in outline. But hearing it told in Harrison’s own voice, and those of friends and collaborators like Merce Cunningham and Jody Diamond (with no “voice of God” narrator, an effective choice on Soltes’s part), watching Harrison at work with his partner Bill Colvig actually building the instruments that became a part of his music, and seeing parts of numerous performances of his music (including by the San Francisco Symphony) was terribly moving. When I get home I’m going to have to get out my music of Harrison’s gorgeous and poignant “A Waltz for Evelyn Hinrichsen,” the orchestration of which from his Third Symphony is one of the last pieces we hear in the film, and play it, one of the few piano pieces I can actually perform, again.

[3/14/12: added some links and updated title of Lou Harrison biography]

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