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
“American Mavericks” Festival
Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, March 28, 2012
San Francisco Symphony
conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas
Emanuel Ax, Piano
Carl Ruggles – “Sun-treader”
Morton Feldman – “Piano and Orchestra”
Charles Ives/Henry Brant – “A Concord Symphony”
Michael Tilson Thomas’s “American Mavericks” concerts came to New York, centered on four programs at Carnegie Hall with the superb San Francisco Symphony, surrounded by a whirl of fringe events throughout the city. This was a bold and appropriate way to show not only the versatility and virtuosity of the orchestra but also the evolution of orchestral culture in the United States: the works were played as modern classics, with the ideal combination of polish and bite that they call for. The audience has clearly evolved along with the orchestras: Carnegie Hall was close to full with a healthy mixture of grey and not-so-grey heads intently focused on the music. So accomplished and appealing were the performances that even the Feldman work, probably the most novel work on the program, held audience attention effortlessly through its 26-plus minute duration.
Tilson Thomas had obliquely suggested that the audience help the performers realize Feldman’s music, presumably by remaining unusually quiet, since the work is performed at an average dynamic of pianissimo, with important spaces of silence separating its sustained moments. The compliance of the audience was palpable, made more dramatic by the rare, inevitable sounds that did occur. If you listen to a recording of any work by Feldman, the peripheral sounds: chairs creaking, performers breathing audibly, pages turning, etc become part of an atmosphere that speaks to intense concentration and focused listening.
The first half of the program proved to be beautifully balanced. Thomas suggested this when he spoke of Ruggles as a small man who made loud proclamations, whether of praise or condemnation, contrasted with Feldman, a large man who composed the quietest body of music we have. Both composers speak in purely atonal harmonic styles that no longer pose problems even for main-stream concert audiences. Thomas virtually owns “Sun-treader”, although previous performances I have encountered conducted by Robert Spano at Tanglewood proved to be equally effective. Thomas included the work in his first recording with the Boston Symphony, a performance that still can be described as “hair-raising.” He then re-recorded it with the Buffalo Philharmonic in a complete Ruggles project. (The composer wrote so little that I believe the whole project was contained on two LP records.) At 16-1/2 minutes, this is one of the composer’s longest extant works, and it took him decades to finish. But the concentrated work pays off: despite a structure which becomes predictable in its alternation of grand, heaven-storming, Pindaric rhetoric and an introspective atonal lyricism, each note and phrase holds its own in a compelling discourse shot through with an electric charge. As this performance demonstrated, the grandeur, lyricism, and tension are filled with a unique beauty of line and orchestral sonority.
Feldman’s essay in contrasting sonorities (not a concerto, void of any overt virtuosity) possessed similar qualities of concentration, electricity, and beauty of sonority, all at the opposite end of the dynamic spectrum. While Ruggles uses a dialectic of dissonant linear counterpoint (often reduced to only two parts), as well as an alternation of full orchestral tutti with homogenous choirs, Feldman’s approach is more homophonic, with composite sonorities that undergo miniature life-spans, sometimes static and sometimes undergoing metamorphosis, each unique though subtly connected by partial resemblance. The structure of the piece gradually shifts from isolated sonorities to ones that start linking together. The connecting tissue might be silence (always alive!), a background sound so quiet that it is barely audible, or a minute overlap, with the new idea picking up at the last moment of the previous as it fades into silence.
This is difficult music to describe with the terminology we normally apply to musical structures. The composer-theorist James Tenney (1934-2006), who was a friend of Feldman’s, described these musical entities as “Klangs” rather than as notes, chords, lines, phrases, or what-have-you.1 “Klangs” are composite sonorous entities that can emanate from any sound-source; the terminology is useful for composers of electronic music who often assemble musical objects. French theorists write about “formants” as sounds that possess complex and dynamic harmonic spectra. All of these terms attempt to describe worlds of sound that composers have been exploring (absent appropriate terminology) at least since Debussy’s orchestral works and possibly dating as far back as Berlioz.
By now, these exotic terms indicate experiences that audiences have not only accepted, but are able to “read” as meaningful musical utterances, compelling musical experiences. This impression was confirmed by a performance that brought the traditional virtues of sonorities beautifully shaped by both orchestra and soloist selflessly devoting themselves to the sound-space they were co-inhabiting. Ax in particular played a piano part that seemed superficially simple but in which an infinitesimal control of dynamic and sonority was required at every moment; few pianists around are as qualified as he is to take on this work.
So is it appropriate to label these composers “Mavericks?” Based on the evidence of these pieces and their contemporary reception, I’d say it is an overstatement, or at best a historical marker: their one-time maverick status seems to be transforming to an established position in American concert life, thanks, ironically, to efforts of musicians like Tilson Thomas. They are unlikely to generate controversy at this stage; no one stormed out of the hall in outrage, there were no fist-fights. On the other hand, they are not yet overly-familiar repertory items, and one hopes that they will never suffer that fate.
The question as applied to Henry Brant’s orchestral version of Ives’s “Concord Sonata” (entitled “A Concord Symphony”) is even more complicated. Brant, certainly a candidate for maverick status himself, was not otherwise represented in this festival, so the conflation of him and Ives would seem thoroughly appropriate. (Ives’s status as maverick is perhaps the most unassailable of all.) But this project, undertaken as a labor of love over a period of four decades, produces a work that one would love to hail as an epitome, a meeting of two maverick sensibilities in the form of “the great American symphony” that was being sought so diligently at the time of its conception.2 Despite, or perhaps because of my adoration for the original “Concord Sonata,” I have to say that this version falls short despite its many virtues. Its problem may have been undue reverence for Ives’s source material.
The “Concord Sonata” has been a truly problematic masterpiece; it undoubtedly deserves that label, but there are serious problems about establishing it as a text. It is in fact a challenge to performers to simply decide which notes to play; Ives published two different versions, as well as four “Improvisations” based on materials from its first movement, and there are recordings of Ives himself improvising yet other versions of this material. John Kirkpatrick, who premiered the work, performed it frequently, and edited the second published version, once told me that he wished he could publish another version with transparent overlays in colored ink to show all the variations that are available in the Ives manuscripts so that performers could choose which ones they feel like playing on any particular occasion. I think it is safe to say that Ives would have added: “or play any other damn thing you like!”
Given the contingent and improvisational qualities of this unique work, hearing the orchestra perform it is like seeing an example of Andy Goldsworthy’s nature-based art pieces transformed into a marble sculpture, especially at those moments where Brant respectfully clothes Ives’s more conventional-sounding moments in a highly-crafted, polished twentieth-century orchestral sound that might come from, say, Walter Piston. The percussive leanness of Ives’s piano writing (even at his most complex) becomes plush; the feisty grandiosity becomes rhetorically flabby. An example is the climax of “The Alcotts” in which the image of one of the girls at the parlor piano banging out a conflation of Missionary Chant and Beethoven’s Fifth sounds like a score to a Hollywood version,3 complete with a glossy sentimentality that replaces Ives’s sincere, hard-won, and ironically tinged sentimentality.
Elsewhere, Brant reverts to his own maverick voice, one that no one could mistake for Ives, and thereby (paradoxically) does a much better job of capturing Ives’s spirit. An example is the opening of the “Hawthorne” movement which Brant scores for a cluster of piccolos and flutes, setting up an exotic, ear-catching sonority that captures the fantastic, ephemeral character of the moment perfectly, and sounds just like Brant, not at all like Ives. Moments such as this make me wish that Brant had put more of himself into the rest of the score. They keep bobbing up, and make listening to this work a fascinating experience.
Interestingly, the brassy scoring of the beginning of “Emerson” sounds very similar to the beginning of the Ruggles (minus the pounding timpani strokes—Brant uses only two against Ruggles’ sixteen), an indication, perhaps, of why these two old New England codgers were such good friends. But where Ruggles mixed horns and low winds, Brant uses a pure brass sound, reflecting his orchestrational preferences. In his own works, he loves to experiment with masses of unmixed instrumental color: orchestras of flutes, trombones, or percussion instruments. Such sonority-complexes are often juxtaposed with contrasting ones, but rarely blended in the conventional manner of orchestral scoring. It is those moments, as well as the quirky references to popular music culture, that most succeed in capturing Ives’s utterly unconventional aesthetic. The band music of “Hawthorne” is one such spot, echoing Brant’s own “Music for a Five and Dime” in its funky use of cowbell and woodblock, despite sounding nothing like Ives’s orchestral idiom.
Another place that works fairly well (though not brilliantly) is the long final section of “Thoreau” which is austerely eloquent and moving in its long fade-out, a bit reminiscent of the end of Ives’s “Fourth Symphony” but more tame and conventional. In fact, I found it (dare I say it) a bit boring, compared to what great pianists such as Kirkpatrick, Kalish, Hamlin, or Aimard have done here. This music was crafted for an individual performer at the keyboard who can bring minute nuances to each iteration of the phrase, sensitive variations requiring the rapt attention of the audience (the kind of listening demanded by Feldman, for example). Brant’s attempt to be “good” and serious betrays him here: one wishes that he had been less reverent and more willing to be outrageously experimental, even in these “hallowed” pages.
The fact is that none of this sounds like it could have been scored by Ives, whose style of writing for the orchestra was both idiosyncratic and conventional in nineteenth-century, not twentieth-century, terms. Ives learned about orchestration from Horatio Parker, than whom a more conventional musical figure cannot be found. Ives’s First and Second Symphonies show complete mastery of the Brahms/Tchaikovsky style of orchestration; his Third and Fourth demonstrate his ability to reinvent the orchestra to fit his unique vision, but it was a 19th century orchestra from which he was departing. This can be clearly heard in “Three Places in New England” (to select a work spiritually allied with “The Concord Sonata”). The kind of smooth professionalism of twentieth-century scoring that Brant uses in parts of his “Symphony” is absent; in its place is a layering of idioms: romantically lyrical and homogenous strings playing utterly original dissonant harmonies, winds and brass disrupting the homogeneity with more or less irrelevant comments, some dimly perceived, others popping out unexpectedly; sections of conventional tonal harmony, either in a nineteenth-century symphonic or band idiom, slowly morphing and dividing into conflicting layers moving at different speeds in different keys in contrasting sections of the orchestra. There are moments in Brant’s scoring of “Emerson” which approach this type of orchestration, and there is never any question about Brant’s understanding of the music or his devotion to it. But as in Ives’s own project which he called “The Universe Symphony,” Brant may have taken on a task which by its very nature could not be successfully completed. And it is in that category that the work should be placed: a way to bring Ives’s unique masterpiece to the attention of the public, but as a prelude to hearing it in its intended form rather than as a fully realized artistic product. It should not be thought of as Ives’s “Fifth Symphony” and I would not like it to become Brant’s best-known work, since it really is not consistently a work that represents Brant’s remarkable, idiosyncratic vision very well.
All credit is due to Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Orchestra. Their festival is needed and welcome, however it is labeled and marketed. Thomas knows this music as well as anyone, and has put it before the public with a fresh and boundless enthusiasm that belies his elder statesmen years. He clearly experiences the music as new and fresh, an essential quality for any performer, since indeed every performance should be a new and fresh experience for all involved. The rendering of the Ives/Brant work was superior to that of the New York premier by the American Composer’s Orchestra led by Brant himself in 1996, especially in the “Hawthorne” section.
The figure of Ives belongs in a celebration of mavericks; it would have been ideal if time could have been found to include a performance of the “Concord Sonata”. He was the original maverick, unless one wants to look back to such American eccentrics as William Billings or “Papa” Heinrich. Other composers featured in this festival (Ruggles, Brant, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell) were inspired and financially supported by Ives. His discovery by future generations led to a new valuation of Ruggles (that early MTT recording of “Sun-treader” had on the flip side his as-yet unsurpassed rendition of “Three Places in New England”) and other Americans of the ‘20’s like Ruth Crawford-Seeger. A desirable outcome of such a festival would be a continuation of that sense of inspiration, whether linked to American identity or transmuted (as Lou Harrison or Henry Brant would have liked) into a kind of global maverick consciousness. The question of how this will happen is, for the moment, unanswered.
“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)
- In his pioneering theory book about contemporary music, “Meta + Hodos” (1963) ↩
- The mid-century American symphonists of the 1940’s to 50’s aspired to this status, with Copland perhaps achieving the closest thing to success in his “Third Symphony” of 1944, built around his “Fanfare to the Common Man.” But the “greatness” of that work is in the success of its grandiose gestures; a work like Ives’s “Fourth Symphony” (completed in the 1920’s but not performed until the 1960’s) out-does it in its at times wacky originality and consistent grandiosity of vision, which is not so much American as cosmic. ↩
- Brant worked as an orchestrator in Hollywood for major films like “Cleopatra” and “2001;” it turns out that he was a master of the idiom. ↩