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American Mavericks at Carnegie Hall, Tuesday, March 27, 2012, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Play Varèse, Cowell, Cage, and Adams

Edgard Varese with Igor Stravinsky

Edgard Varese with Igor Stravinsky

Carnegie Hall
Tuesday, March 27, 2012, 8 pm

San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director and Conductor
St. Lawrence String Quartet
Geoff Nuttall, Violin
Scott St. John, Violin
Lesley Robertson, Viola
Christopher Costanza, Cello

Joan La Barbara, Vocalist
Meredith Monk, Vocalist
Jessye Norman, Soprano

Jesse Stiles, Electronics
Yuval Sharon, Stage Director

Cage – Song Books (1970)
Cowell – Synchrony (1930)
John Adams – Absolute Jest for String Quartet and Orchestra (2011, NY Premiere, commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the San Francisco Symphony, with support from the Phyllis C. Wattis Fund for New Works of Music.)
Varèse – Amériques (composed between ca. 1918 and 1921, revised 1927)

The reviews of three concerts and a dance performance you will find on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, one in San Francisco and three in New York, represent only a small part of the month-long festival, organized by Carnegie Hall under Michael Tilson Thomas’ direction, but including many other events scattered about the city at venues including the the Whitney, the Henry Street Settlement, the New York Public Library, and (le) Poisson Rouge. (Click here for a full listing. It should be noted that Michael Clark, reviewed here by Louise Levathes, is very much a maverick, although not an American.) I especially regret I couldn’t attend more of it, but I can take some consolation in referring you to WQXR’s expansive coverage of most aspects of the festival, with articles, interviews, and snippets of performances.)

I should begin with Carnegie Hall’s straightforward statement of the program, which simply invites audiences to come and enjoy the music. After hearing its variety and vitality, new listeners who have made their initial discovery through the series will explore the repertory further in concerts and recordings. There was no particular thesis or argument behind the initiative. I was attracted partly by a desire to hear the San Francisco Symphony and partly by my enthusiasm for the work of early twentieth century American composers: Ives, Ruggles, Cowell, and Varèse, to name a few from the listings…and I never can seem to stay away from a Cage performance, either for that matter. On the other hand, I approached the concerts with some scepticism, since American composers tend not to be mavericks at all. Many are products of Harvard, Yale, or some other distinguished university, although some, like Cowell and Cage, enjoyed unconventional upbringings at the hands of unconventional, even eccentric parents. Most have enjoyed protected careers, supported by teaching jobs in revered institutions, with their own work supported by grants from respected foundations. Even the extreme maverick, Henry Cowell, was educated at UC Berkeley, was editor of a major journal, and became a key member of the establishment—all after serving four years in San Quentin! Edgard Varèse, who came to New York from Paris at the age of twenty-nine and never became fully assimilated as an American, and was the most maverick of all, founded an organization, the International Composers’ Guild, only a few years after his emigration. Perhaps this gesture in the direction of permanence is necessary, if one wishes to mould the future.

The academic stream in American art music was much in evidence at the 2009 Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, which was organized by a major figure in middle generation of the American musical establishment, Augusta Read Thomas. American and European composers were systematically balanced in the program, and the academic character of the Americans’ work became immediately apparent. While the Europeans tended to base their works on common human experience and emotions, the American works were more conceptual, looking inward, often hermetically, to the sounds and mechanics of music. I don’t imply that one approach is universally better than the other, but the division between the communities the composers address is clear.

The alternative mode of existence for a composer consists of working in the world at large and supporting oneself and one’s work through the work alone, that is, on the sales of tickets and recordings, as well as the occasional commission—more or less what Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms did—is relatively rare today. Elgar and Sibelius’ situations were examples of the problems surrounding this, as art music became increasingly self-referential. They had to write works that appealed to their audiences, and they were, up to a point, sufficiently comfortable with that, while composers and critics of a more rarified bent criticised them bitterly as crowd-pleasers. Neither composer was immune to the temptation of pot-boilers. For later generations Hollywood had a strong lure. There was one example of this in American Mavericks was Henry Brant, an original and daring composer who applied his gifts for orchestration in mainstream Hollywood movies.

If we take the word really seriously, too seriously, then the only real American maverick would be Moondog. But in all seriousness, the true, great American maverick was Charles Ives, who made his living selling insurance.

In the Berkshire Review, Steven Kruger has already given a vivid account of John Cage’s Song Books in his review of the San Francisco performance, and our experiences were quite similar, so I won’t say too much. The Carnegie Hall stage was a fairly capacious area for a Cage performance, but the participants had no trouble filling it with instruments, objects, and surfaces to put them on. Above all, I was struck, as was SWK, by the elegance and control of the performance. At Bard and in the City we have been favored in recent years by Cage events manned and womanned by long-time collaborators and friends of the composer, and there was always a feeling of randomness to their sounds and actions, as if the players and the audience were in suspension. This was surely to some degree an illusion, since a good deal of preparation goes into these events, but in Carnegie on that evening little of that illusion was perceptible. By summoning a collection of high-profile performers and artists, which included himself, Michael Tilson Thomas created a situation in which these very focused people of great accomplishment would necessarily lend their own strong directionalities to the proceedings. It is striking that they all—and the work—came together with such a distinct shape and rhythm. MTT, who was present and active on stage without seeming to be doing much of anything until he got a deck of cards in his hand, surely must have had something to do with that. All the other performances I heard on the two evenings I attended were exceptionally disciplined and polished, and Song Books was no exception. It was almost grand and operatic in feeling. Some might say this isn’t right, but Cage’s indications must surely include traditional musical values, as well as the intelligence and wills of the likes of Jessye Norman, Joan La Barbara, and Meredith Monk. It was an impressive display.

Synchrony, a single-movement work for large orchestra by Cowell, who was one of Cage’s teachers, seems an essential expression of what the American avant-garde was about at the time it was written, 1930. With its long solo trumpet statement of its freely-shaped main subject, the dissonant flute continuation, and its exploration of a seemingly dream-like consciousness, the work seems quite radical, although Cowell’s Bolero-like application of variations to the repeated theme is straightforward enough. The hint of counterpoint and the stretto at the end are also conventional. The echoes we hear of Debussy, Stravinsky, Mahler, and Gershwin seemed perhaps more daring in 1930 than they do today. To us, they anchor the work in its twentieth century precedents. Our perspective on this music has changed, but that makes it none the less appealing. We can add to that the ability to hear the music performed by a thoroughly prepared orchestra of the first rank, and the San Francisco Symphony certainly is that. The solo wind players were impeccable, and the ensemble was astonishing. The San Francisco strings have the ability to produce a rather dry, darkish sound when appropriate, as well as the lush, Romantic sound of a New York Philharmonic or a Boston Symphony, but I have never heard the two styles applied together with such sophistication. Throughout these concerts it was a delight to listen to the playing of the orchestra, just for its own sake.

Cowell originally conceived Synchrony as a dance work for Martha Graham, although a performance of that sort never materialized. Taken in its most advanced and spiritual form, the work is all about movement and perhaps travel, an inner travel, where separate events in different places can happen at the same time.

John Adams’ Absolute Jest for String Quartet and Orchestra was specially commissioned for American Mavericks. Among these, Adams represents Harvard, where he received a BA and an MA in Music. Since then, he has followed a steady path to his present status as one of the most established and most familiar American composers among audiences. He has the knack of writing music which is sufficiently challenging and intellectually interesting to impress his peers, but which is also accessible and entertaining for audiences. This particular work, based on motifs taken mostly from the scherzi of Beethoven’s late string quartets, with a bit from the scherzo of Ninth Symphony, the Große Fuge, and a middle quartet, is exceptionally elaborate in texture, as he interweaves his Beethovenian sources and moves from one to another. It is a high-spirited, fast-moving piece which constantly catches the listener’s attention and leaves him or her with little time to judge whether what he is doing is truly interesting or merely diverting. To me it resembled what goes around in my head after a concert of late Beethoven quartets—a mental whirligig I might well want to suppress in the interests of conversation with my companions, safety crossing the street, or reflecting back on the music in a thoughtful way. While it never became boring, the work did seem rather long for its material (Beethoven himself dispatched some of the scherzi in less than three minutes, after all.), and Adams did seem to be treading water during the latter part of it. Adams has said that his compositional method comes close to conventional variations here. Is he thinking of the “Diabelli” Variations? Perhaps that impression would go away after a second listening.

The orchestra and the St. Lawrence quartet played with terrific energy and enthusiasm—an enthusiasm which, in the case of the quartet, seemed a little forced.

The concert closed with Varèse’s Amériques, one of the signature works of the international avant-garde, remembered most, rather trivially, for its use of a siren among his huge forces. This extraordinary performance of the better-known revised version of the work, in which the orchestra was paired down from 146 to 125 instruments, is one more example of how fortunate we are to live in a time when orchestras can play modern masterpieces like this with accuracy and assurance, not to mention gratifying musicality and moments of sonic luxury. Even the notorious siren was played like a musical instrument, with nuance and expression. One wonders what the 1926 premiere of the original version with Leopold Stokowski and his great Philadelphia Orchestra would sound like to ears who have heard latter-day performances like this one.

In a performance of this assurance and control, Amériques can’t help but sound less startling than it did when it was new. We can hear Varèse’s inspiration in echoes of Debussy and Stravinsky, above all the seminal Sacre du Printemps, and this gives the work the character of belonging to that era. Given the choice of experiencing Amériques for its shock value or as a musical creation of genius and depth, it is easy to know the answer. In this way Michael Tilson Thomas is doing us an incomparable service in helping us to create this new, more distant perspective.

Larry Wallach has already discussed the second concert in the series, which combined Ruggles’ Sun-treader, Morton Feldman’s wonderful Piano and Orchestra, and Henry Brant’s orchestration of Ives’ “Concord” Sonata, as A Concord Symphony. I’ll only add that at first Brant’s orchestration seemed like a desecration of a work, which should, at least, have a quasi-religious aura to it, especially for educated Americans. In retrospect, I realize that Henry Brant belongs in these concerts as well as the great Charles Ives, although this effort showed the best of neither.

See also

“Michael Clark’s Who’s Zoo at Whitney Biennial,” by Louise Levathes

“American Mavericks at Davies Hall: the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas and Friends Play Cage, Foss, Cowell, and Ruggles,” by Steven Kruger (Berkshire Review)

“Not Maverick Enough? San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas performing at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, March 28, 2012, in the ‘American Mavericks’ Festival,” by Larry Wallach

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L'Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides' Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.