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Remeber the Mavericks

March 10, 2012

Lou Harrison from the Eva Soltes documentary Lou Harrison: A World of Music
The San Francisco Symphony is in the midst of their 100th anniversary season which has been filled with exciting programing and great reminders of its past at every turn. The orchestra has a history of coveted relationships with local 20th-century composers and some of these ties are featured prominently in their current American Mavericks series, which kicked off this week in a series of programs that the group will take on tour in Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Carnegie Hall under music director Michael Tilson Thomas. It’s music most American symphonies don’t play every day, which is a plus even if the opening program, which I heard on Saturday night felt more like a flashback than looking into the future.

This is not the first time Tilson Thomas has brought American Mavericks to the stage in San Francisco. The first was in 2000 and this reprisal run contains almost exclusively works the orchestra has performed under him before with a few new commissions from well-established figures like John Adams and Meredith Monk. And as Tilson Thomas acknowledged from the stage prior to the start of the evening, the term “maverick” has meant different things at different times. (Or as the 2008 election taught us, it may have no meaning whatsoever.) And on opening night the word's meaning was definitely a historical one with works from composers who were outliers in the world of art music in their own times if not quite so much now.

Two of the works on the program were further outliers in that they were orchestral transcriptions or adaptations of better known solo piano works. The night started with Copland’s Orchestral Variations, a 1957 arrangement of his earlier Piano Variations now for a small ensemble. Tilson Thomas mentioned his own close relationship with the composer and noted that in his later years, Copland had given him his blessing on developing a further large-scale orchestral expansion of the work that Tilson Thomas described as “just something we do.” The work’s brief 10 or so minutes do still maintain the sort of angular and percussive sound Copland had cultivated prior to completing the later music he would be most remembered for. Still, the piece felt like a curiosity or an abstraction of a much more substantial work in a modern day equivalent of those opera transcriptions for piano and organ that were so popular during the 19th century. This same unsettling feeling also plagued Ives' A Concord Symphony which closed the evening. Ives’ landmark A Concord Sonata, written nearly a century ago, is undoubtedly a piece that may be the well-spring of all 20th-century American art music. In the hands of a performer like Aimard it can still stun an audience into silence. The love of the piece was so strong for composer Henry Brant, that he spent decades working on an orchestra transcription of the work, which was completed in 1994. In this format it still fascinates with its references to popular culture of the late 19th century fused to the most unexpected music that deconstructs this material as quickly as it picks it up. But there is still something lost here, the broader orchestral palette of sounds abandoning a kind of unity in the original piano sonata.

In between these two orchestral oddities, was Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra. Harrison was another local composer that Tilson Thomas noted had a long-standing relationship with this orchestra. (There's been a lot of reflection on Harrison here lately in the wake of the recent opening of Eva Soltes's excellent documentary on the composer Lou Harrison: A World of Music that is still playing in town.) The concerto incorporates Harrison’s interest in Asian music and instrumentation in an odd combination of percussion players alongside the organ, played here by Paul Jacobs, which sometimes serves as a point of contrast. It’s not unpleasant, but it could also sound like Messiaen played by your high school marching band. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. And while this program seemed appropriately historical for the occasion, none of it seemed particularly compelling in the here and now. These were memories of Mavericks past, not those still pointing the way to the future.



The American Mavericks Festival is and always has been very much a historical look at "experimental" American music rather than a look forward, which is part of what is interesting about it. There are plenty of contemporary music ensembles and concerts around, but a festival devoted to the fairly recent past is rare. Particularly compared to most American symphony orchestras' programming, it's even "maverick," especially the fact that difficult, near-contemporary music isn't being paired up with Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony in the second half of a program to make subscribers happy.
Rarely played or not, when the newest thing on the bill dates to 1973 (outside of the completion of the Ives arrangement) I'm not sure "fairly recent" is an accurate description.

I will agree that Beethoven would not have upped the artistic value of the evening. What might have though, would be including a work from the 20th century that MTT and the symphony haven't offered up before, or better yet, how about adding a piece from a less established composer who still has a pulse. Outside of Mason Bates, these shows overall are still very much museum pieces. Maybe not the European masters wing, but a museum nevertheless.
Dear Brian: That was my point. Of course it's a museum wing, but an interesting one. The marketing department has made lots of claims for this series, but being on the cutting edge of contemporary music isn't one of them as far as I know.

As far as offering up pieces the SF Symphony hasn't played before, much of this first program was being set up for the nationwide tour more than anything else, and in terms of guest symphonic programming in Chicago or Carnegie Hall, it's fairly radical stuff, sad to say. There are also world premieres by Adams and Monk ahead which is fairly major news. Mason Bates may have a pulse (I assume you're being ageist here) but his music interests me the least in anticipation.

Ancient Morton Subotnick's "Jacob's Room," with Joan La Barbara's solo singing tomorrow, even though it's in a piece that's been reworked over thirty years, is brand new for me and I can't wait to hear it. Like I say, it may not be cutting edge, but for most people this music is new.
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