On a MissionTo Celebrate The Different

Feb 24, 2012

The New York Times
by Anthony Tommasini

IN the fall of 1995 the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas opened his inaugural program as music director of the San Francisco Symphony with the premiere of Lou Harrison’s “Parade.” This was not just a festive piece to begin a new era. Mr. Thomas was signaling that under his leadership the orchestra would champion idiosyncratic American composers, especially West Coasters like Harrison.

This mission expanded in 2000, when Mr. Thomas presented an American Mavericks festival. The programs brought together composers as different as Charles Ives, Edgard Varèse, Meredith Monk and other mavericks who did not fit in with any school or style. The festival was a hit with audiences, and smaller related spinoffs have continued in subsequent years.

As part of its centennial season the San Francisco Symphony is again presenting a major American Mavericks festival, which includes a four-concert residency at Carnegie Hall in late March. The first two programs (March 27 and 28) feature the full orchestra in Stern Auditorium. The opening program begins with selections from John Cage’s “Song Books” with Ms. Monk, Joan La Barbara and the soprano Jessye Norman. Could there be more diverse vocalists? Henry Cowell’s “Synchrony” and the New York premiere of John Adams’s “Absolute Jest” for string quartet (here the St. Lawrence Quartet) and orchestra will also be heard. The program concludes with Varèse’s sonically assaultive “Amériques,” completed in 1921 and still a shocker with its police sirens and lion’s roar.

The next night Mr. Thomas conducts Carl Ruggles’s “Sun-Treader” and Ives’s “Concord Symphony” (Henry Brant’s orchestration of Ives’s visionary “Concord” Piano Sonata). Of special interest is Morton Feldman’s “Piano and Orchestra,” an unconventional concerto with swaths of mystical music, featuring the superb pianist Emanuel Ax.

The series then moves to Zankel Hall, where members of the orchestra will play smaller-scale works (March 29 and 30). The first program has pieces by Harry Partch, Mason Bates and David Del Tredici along with Harrison’s exhilarating Concerto for Organ and Percussion (which had a rare performance at the Juilliard School during the recent Cage festival). The brilliant organist Paul Jacobs is the soloist. The final program, hosted by Mr. Thomas and conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky, has music by Ms. Monk, Steve Reich, Lukas Foss and the New York premiere of Morton Subotnick’s “Jacob’s Room: Monodrama.”

The term maverick has been devalued of late by politicians from all over the spectrum who claim it as a brand name. What links the American Mavericks composers for Mr. Thomas is their feisty independence. Harrison, for example, drew great inspiration from Eastern music, writing unconventional pieces that combined Asian instruments, especially the gamelan, with Western models.

“His music was totally out, whether you were on the Barber-Copland side of things or the Babbitt-Sessions side of things,” Mr. Thomas was quoted as saying in a 1997 article on Harrison in The New York Times. These days Harrison, who died in 2003 at 85, is more hot than out. For this Mr. Thomas’s American Mavericks venture can take some credit.

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