American Mavericks II

Saturday, March 10, 2012

My second American Mavericks concert of the week, with the wonderful San Francisco Symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas.

When I made a brief allusion to it in my Sunday Salon last week, I fear I may have been too jokey in writing about John Cage’s Song Books. Yes, the surreal humor and juxtapositions were fascinating and appealing in themselves. But the entire experience was also very substantial as a theatrical happening and as a musical performance. Cage’s score, as you may know, is a combination of actual music (in both conventional and very non-conventional notation), text, theater, and instructions as to how to put it all together. The moments of beauty, even if they happened almost by accident – such as one moment toward the end when Joan La Barbara intoned a lovely passage from Thoreau while Jessye Norman sang something quite hymn-like – entranced the ear. By the way, whoever had the idea of combining three amazing singers of quite diverse talents – Norman, La Barbara, and Meredith Monk – deserves a prize. Their voices and personal charisma brought to life what in other circumstances could seem just a novelty. There were perhaps a few audience members, such as the couple seated next to me, who were resistant to this admittedly unusual music. But most seemed to take it in the generous spirit with which it was offered, and enjoyed themselves, and even laughed at a number of appropriate moments.

As much of a tour de force as this performance was, by the way, I wish I’d also had an opportunity to give an ovation to the Davies Symphony Hall tech crew. The way the fifteen or twenty techs tore down the very elaborate stage set during intermission – tables, a multitude of microphones and lights, electronics, and three small house-like structures in which much of the action took place – and prepared the stage for the Orchestra in the second half of the concert was nothing short of amazing. It was very controlled chaos that they made look much simpler than I know it really was.

The second half of this program contained three pieces. In Phorion, Lukas Foss deconstructs the Prelude from Bach’s Partita in E major (originally for solo violin) in what he once called a “Bach Nightmare.” At moments this reminded me of some of Alfred Schnittke’s music, like the Concerto Grosso No. 1 or the String Quartet No. 3, in which references or outright quotations from music of the past emerge from, then are pulled back into, thorny swirls of dissonance. The major difference is that Foss’s music is entirely derived from the Bach original – just distended, distorted, pulled about in a variety of ways. I personally thought that there was a lot of humor in the piece, but I was hearing it while awake with a crowd. If such music were to invade my nightmares, as Foss describes the work’s genesis, perhaps I’d feel differently.

The name and legacy of Henry Cowell should be vastly better known to the music loving world. And he should certainly be remembered for something beyond the tone clusters – the masses of notes that a pianist plays with his or her fists or forearms, or with a stretch of two-by-four – that initially made his fame. One of the widest-ranging musical intellects of his time, Cowell incorporated not only avant garde techniques, but his vast knowledge of the musics of the world, into a catalog of hundreds of compositions. Not only that, but Cowell was an enormously influential teacher and example (and publisher) for a host of later composers, like Lou Harrison, John Cage, and even Burt Bacharach. The fusion of diverse world music cultures that are now such a standard part of the concert and recording experience might not have happened without Henry Cowell leading the way.

Those tone clusters, it must be said, are a major feature of Cowell’s Piano Concerto, a big, even cinematic work (if that isn’t too much of an anachronism for something written in 1928). One might not think, though, that so much colorful, evocative, and lively music could derive from those techniques. Seeing a bit of film of Henry Cowell performing at the piano in the Lou Harrison documentary I wrote about last time, it’s obvious that the pianist that takes on this music must have considerable personal flair as well as a highly developed conventional technique. Pianist Jeremy Denk certainly has that, and certainly seems to be an audience favorite. His performance of the Concerto won him an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Closing out the concert was the massive Sun-treader by Carl Ruggles, one of the Ur-American Mavericks. If I had my way, Sun-treader would be regularly performed by all the orchestras of America (at least those that could afford to put together the sizable instrumental resources, and have the technical capability, for this complex music). It certainly isn’t easy listening. Paraphrasing somewhat a story about Ruggles, I would say that this music grabs one by the lapels and forces one to listen actively. Once one does, the brave stride and dissonant lyricism, and the sheer force of the big climaxes, are really impressive. I’ve long valued my copy of the complete music of Ruggles that Michael Tilson Thomas recorded quite a while ago with the Buffalo Philharmonic and others. Although Ruggles lived to the age of 95, his complete works fit onto just two LPs (and presumably onto two CDs when Other Minds releases them in that form this year). Sun-treader, at about sixteen minutes, is the longest and biggest of his pieces, and it was a great way to end yet another quite diverse concert.

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