American Mavericks III

Where else but at the San Francisco Symphony’s mammoth American Mavericks concert series could one hear music by the likes of Edgard Varèse, John Adams, Charles Ives, John Cage, Henry Cowell, and Morton Feldman, played by one of the finest orchestras in the world, and all within a few days of one another? This series has called attention to major creative figures that, in a more culturally and artistically aware country, would be heralded as heroes and exemplars of the American spirit. I can’t imagine how much hard work went into these performances, but all kudos to Michael Tilson Thomas and the Orchestra for an amazing experience. Their performances were uniformly excellent, at least the equal of any recordings of these pieces (and generally, there aren’t very many) available.

For my third post on the American Mavericks series, I would like to talk about the concert of Thursday, March 15, featuring the San Francisco Symphony, conductors Michael Tilson Thomas (in three of the four pieces) and Donato Cabrera, pianist Emanuel Ax, organist Paul Jacobs, electronica from Mason Bates, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.

Two major world premieres occupied the first half of the program. Starting things off was Mass Transmission by Mason Bates, featuring chorus, organ, and electronic sounds created by Mr. Bates – all conducted by my friend Donato Cabrera, Resident Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. Bates derived his texts from transcribed conversations, originally transmitted via wireless radio broadcast, between Dutch young people working as colonial pages in Indonesia and their families in the Netherlands – in particular a very touching conversation between a young girl in Java and her mother back home – as well as memories of how those broadcasts came about. As Bates says in the program notes, “These conversations are among the first important wireless radio transmissions across the world.” Obviously there are also broader implications here about the simultaneously connecting and alienating aspects of technology, back then as well as today.

Melodically the piece was quite beautiful, and its textures ear-catching and evocative. Over the calm, even lines of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, the electronica evoked the noises that inevitably interfered with those broadcasts as well as Indonesian gamelan, and the organist in essence moved between the human and mechanical worlds, sometimes supporting the chorus, sometimes playing wild toccata-like passages. There are lots of such combinations of electronics with voices and instruments nowadays, but few composers bring Bates’s experience as an actual DJ as well as his classical background, including studies with David Del Tredici and John Corigliano. Mass Transmission was the first piece by Bates I’d ever heard, and I will be exploring more of his music in short order.

The other world premiere was Absolute Jest by John Adams. Taking as his starting point motifs from the scherzo movements of Ludwig van Beethoven’s string quartets and symphonies, Adams has crafted a sizable scherzo-like movement of his own, scored for string quartet and orchestra. He has written in the past of how he likes to alternate more serious compositions with others that reflect his “trickster” side; Absolute Jest falls into the latter category, and is, I think, one of his most purely fun pieces. The Beethoven fragments he uses were relatively easy to recognize, even if the context in which they appear is unfamiliar and surprising. Most prominent were ideas from the sixth movement of the C-sharp minor Quartet, Op. 131, the second movement from the Quartet in F major, Op. 135, and the “Grosse Fuge” originally intended for the Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130. The work’s opening, with its tremolos and swells, has a sense of expectation clearly related to both the first and second movements of the Ninth Symphony. (Incidentally, a recurring theme in these American Mavericks concerts has been the composer’s relationship with music of the past – Lukas Foss’s funhouse take on Bach in Phorion, for instance, or Charles Ives using the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as something of a talisman in the Ives-Brant A Concord Symphony.)

Adams has written of the “the ecstatic energy of Beethoven,” and Absolute Jest is nothing if not propulsive. The frenetic quality brought to the music by the St. Lawrence String Quartet – violinists Geoff Nuttall and Scott St. John, violist Lesley Robertson, and cellist Christopher Constanza – was very appropriate. I’m fairly certain that the quartet was amplified, given the small speakers at the front of the stage, and they almost would have had to be in order to be heard over the sounds of Adams’s typically virtuosic orchestration. As always, there are all sorts of felicities in Adams’s score, little figures and colors just on the cusp of hearing. It was also remarkable, or perhaps not, how quickly an idea from a Beethoven quartet can metamorphose into a propulsive repeating figure that seems right out of Adams’s earlier masterpieces, like Shaker Loops. While there are some moments of calm, even relative stasis, what will probably stick in most people’s minds is the feeling of barely controlled energy – audience members were tapping their feet and nodding their heads, I believe, both to the music and in recognition of the familiar Beethoven motifs. The San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, and the music of John Adams seems a match made in heaven.

After intermission, we moved into a different world altogether with Piano and Orchestra by Morton Feldman, part of a series of orchestral pieces, often involving “soloists” (but not in the usual virtuoso sense) he composed in the 1970s. Spare, mostly quiet in dynamic, Piano and Orchestra has nothing really resembling what we might call a tune, but rather focuses on texture, on sound as such. Listening to Feldman’s music, I often get a mental picture of the composer sitting at the piano, chewing on the stub end of a cigar, depressing the piano’s sustain pedal and relishing the sound of the gorgeous dissonant chords he could apparently produce at will as they ring and gradually fade into the distance.

This score is full of unusual meters and nuances of color and texture – as spare as the music often is, it requires very active concentration and awareness of one another from the participating musicians. It was fascinating to appreciate the “spacial” component of the music, how the figures and textures moved physically throughout the orchestra. One that particularly caught my attention was the relationship between the piano soloist and what I can only describe as the “ghost piano,” the orchestral piano, which often works in tandem with the soloist, echoing or answering what it plays. The big orchestra Feldman calls for is used very sparingly and delicately, with just a few dramatic crescendos from the brass and growls from the basses. I have no idea what Emanuel Ax’s fee was for this performance, but the relation between dollars and notes played may be one of his highest ever. On the other hand, Piano and Orchestra requires someone with his delicacy of touch and subtle sense of color.

Closing out the program was Amériques by Edgard Varèse, which I have to say was one of the most impressive, and loudest, orchestral performances I’ve ever heard. Written not long after Varèse had arrived in the United States from France, Amériques is, if I’m not mistaken, the composer’s earliest surviving work (earlier compositions had been destroyed in a fire). His vision of his new home was not simply, as he once put it, “purely geographic, but … symbolic of discoveries – new worlds on earth, in the sky, or in the minds of men.” Amériques calls for a huge orchestra that filled every nook and niche of the Davies Symphony Hall stage – numbering, I’m guessing, around 130 or 140, including, according to the score, eight horns (although I thought I saw nine on stage), six trumpets, two harps, and a gargantuan percussion section of some 12 or 13 players. I was sitting too far back to be able to tell during the performance, but during rehearsals I saw a number of orchestra musicians wearing earplugs, and I can understand why.

Boldly colored, full of sudden changes of direction and rhythm, Amériques also displays Varèse’s idiosyncratic melodic sense – the music can be very dissonant, but it also embraces repeated melodic cells or patterns that sound like a hint of the minimalism to come a few decades later. In this it called to mind Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, reminiscences of which were, it seems to me, frequent in Amériques, including the alto flute’s opening motif, a not-too-distant cousin to the bassoon’s opening theme in Stravinsky’s work. Whereas, however, The Rite of Spring’s extremities and surprises have become familiar over the years as it has attained warhorse status, Amériques is still seldom heard, and therefore still retains the capacity to shock and surprise. I also couldn’t help but recognize the percussion riffs, and the sounds of Varèse’s trademark siren and Lion’s roar, familiar from his famous all-percussion Ionisation of just a couple of years later. I was very gratified by the standing ovation at the end of this performance of Amériques, symbolic of the really appreciative reception the music of American Mavericks got from its audiences.

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