American Mavericks at Davies Hall: the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas and Friends Play Cage, Foss, Cowell, and Ruggles

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Jessye Norman, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Meredith Monk in John Cage's "Song Books"

Jessye Norman, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Meredith Monk in John Cage’s “Song Books”

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Meredith Monk, Joan La Barbara, Jessye Norman, vocalists
Jeremy Denk, piano

Cage – Song Books (1970)
Foss – Phorion (1967)
Cowell – Piano Concerto (1928)
Ruggles – Sun Treader (1931)

Revolutions, the saying goes, are frequently revisited as farce. If only one knew it at the time! In the ferment of the 1970s, a seeming battle to the death played itself out among advocates of dodecaphonic music and the apostles of deconstructed “happenings.” Both insurgencies would ultimately lose. But the arrogance of the revolutionaries was no different in music from what it would have been in politics. The average listener hoping for Brahms found himself besieged in those days—contemptuously marginalized in either camp—-and marked for replacement. That is always the frightening dimension of revolution: the smugness of the cook breaking eggs for the new omelette—-and the suspicion that you may be one of the eggs.

But forty years on, we can all relax. Despite Madame De Farge knitting at guillotine’s foot, the great pillars of harmony still wear their heads post “terror.” Indeed, twelve-tone music now lies under a tombstone almost without living and breathing issue, except for the Berg Violin Concerto. And a “happening” such as John Cage’s “Song Books” is celebrated as enjoyable but self-limiting experimentation—a pleasant wallow in amiable daftness. Michael Tilson Thomas’ choice of the word “Mavericks” for this concert series is a good one. Revolutionaries replace. But Mavericks enrich….

So it is simply in the spirit of entertainment that one now sits before the tableau of “Song Books” and decodes order from the composer’s musical fragments. Cage may seem to favor random expression, but I suspect he was counting on the performers to build structure from them, and that is what happened here. His melodic fragments and phrases alternate between the long and sustained and the short and choppy. Using both at once gives the musicians a chance to form a long-line harmonic direction which can be punctuated with detail.

The Davies Hall stage-set for “Song Books” was eclectic but rooted in an earlier time. Amid all sorts of equipment onstage stood pieces of pre-modern office furniture and three kiosks I found myself thinking of as “Egyptian bus stops.” In any case, when Jessye Norman appeared grandly under them and sang, the impression was very “Aida.” Above the stage were various projection screens, on which the performers also appeared, often making imprudent noises in competition with themselves. There were amplifications of all sorts to be heard—knuckles rapping on desks—knees being slapped—jazzy Cheyne-Stokes breathing fits—and lots of clacking from typewriters. Leroy Anderson would have been pleased.

But it fascinated to see a structure emerge. It began at the very outset, with a clockwise circle being painted on one of the projection screens. Thereafter, it gradually dawned on one that the twenty or so performers, (who included MTT sitting onstage, mostly playing pattycake with his legs) and featured a bassoonist attempting to play the cello, were engaged in a slow directional “build.” Bit by bit, the players occupied the stage in greater numbers, always moving circularly—-singing or declaming at the “bus stops,” moving over to a table to play cards—even in one instance circling through the audience and presenting a gift to a patron. (It was an apple in a square box—but you’d have to eat it in a circle, I found myself thinking.) Midway through “Song Books,” the piece achieved a sort of heightened “babble” and then gradually began to unwind itself. The performers became fewer onstage until, as in Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, little was left behind. And on one of the screens above—-the circle closed. QED. So much for formlessness! Meredith Monk, Joan LaBarbara and Jessye Norman were all spirited at their tasks, the latter in good voice, and the audience genuinely enjoyed itself.

The second half of this concert was more traditionally orchestral, but still experimental. Foss’ “Phorion” (meaning “stolen goods” in Greek) is essentially a transcription of the Prelude from Bach’s Partita in E for solo violin. Done Foss’s way, it sounds as though composed on acid, with odd parts of itself popping up in strange places. Once again, things teeter on the edge of formlessness, but the string lines are put together with richness and shimmer deliciously—and in the end one applauds the beauty and brevity of the experiment, especially as performed here.

The Cowell Piano Concerto, which followed, was the real discovery of the evening and an utter delight from beginning to end. Imagine a piece with all the zest of Gershwin and Stravinsky, the power of Prokofiev and a piano part to be played with fists, forearms and elbows! Cowell invented the “tone cluster.” And if nothing else, it was fascinating to see what these sounded like. Any fears, though, that the piece would resemble your cat walking the piano were put to rest by Cowell’s shrewd use of harmonic direction. Despite the many notes jammed together, one always had a sense of where the “chords” were going. It was no harder to listen to than early Prokofiev and Bartok, and twice the fun. Jeremy Denk had the full and lively measure of the piece, and the audience erupted with spontaneous delight. The very close of the concerto has the orchestra coming from below the hammering piano like a rising tide and sweeping things to victory—almost as if to say-“Yes this IS music!”

Michael Tilson Thomas first became a household name around 1970, with a successful Boston Symphony recording of the Tchaikovsky “Winter Dreams” Symphony. Soon afterward, he recorded Carl Ruggles’ “Sun Treader,” with the same forces, and it was this disc which put the piece into the repertory. So I am happy to report that his mastery of it is not one whit diminished. In fact there was just the slightest extra edge of fire to the the playing this time. The SFS is an admirably eager orchestra and you almost have to force it on rare occasions into giving a dull performance. Here, the timpanist was white-hot in his determination to bestride the landscape of the piece. “Sun Treader” is a sort of expressionistic ode to limitless light and power in the universe. But it also seems to address the cosmic solitude of planets and space, and that makes it more interesting. Ruggles manages to build vast screeching echoes into the piece—-and you are hard put not to think of them as representing the tragedy of loneliness in the face of the the ineluctable and vast.

This concert of “American Mavericks” was brilliantly chosen as a program—to delight and to inform. And, looking out over the decades of musical revolution which led us to this point—to reassure. It succeeded in all ways. Music is still alive, well and living in San Francisco. And so, to our astonishment, are we!

See also

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

“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

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

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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