Parachuting to Land of Post-its and Cage

Mar 29, 2012

The New York Times
by Anthony Tommasini

San Francisco Symphony’s American Mavericks Series

No conductor talks about music more engagingly than Michael Tilson Thomas. But he was curiously mum on Tuesday night, when the San Francisco Symphony opened a series of four American Mavericks programs at Carnegie Hall. With works by Cage, Cowell and Varèse, and a new piece by John Adams on the program, I expected Mr. Thomas to be at his chattiest.

Cage’s “Song Books” was up first, and the stage was intriguingly set with cubicles, tables, video screens, scattered instruments and dueling grand pianos.

Clearly, Mr. Thomas wanted the audience to enter Cage’s world without explanation. I did not even notice him until several minutes into the piece, when a light brightened, and there he was, sitting on a stool, straight-faced, writing notes on Post-its and affixing them to his jacket.

Cage’s “Song Books” (1970) is basically “a kind of kit from which you, the performer, can come up with songs, speeches, actions, performances on other instruments, which all add up together to create a musical event,” Mr. Thomas said in a program note.

To enjoy the piece, you must put out of your mind any expectation that a song is a setting of a text and that words really matter. Words were a marginal element of this engrossing 35-minute performance, which was closer to a theatrical happening than to a song recital.

The performance had a most unlikely trio of soloists: the composer, sound artist and actorJoan La Barbara; the composer, singer and creator of eclectic musical theater worksMeredith Monk; and the opera soprano Jessye Norman. Ms. La Barbara was sometimes seen in huge video close-ups, intoning vocal sounds and word fragments. During another episode she walked the aisles of the auditorium and gave a present to an audience member whose seat had been selected through some Cagean methodology.

Ms. Monk’s contribution came mostly through her trademark singing of strange and tender vocal sounds, though during one climactic stretch she intoned the Thoreau maxim “The best form of government is no government at all,” which, in the current political climate, came across like a Tea Party slogan.

And Ms. Norman, looking the glorious diva and sounding radiant, sang fragments of elusive melodic lines. At one point, she played cards with orchestra musicians at a table; at another, she performed rhythmic patterns on that bygone period instrument, the typewriter.

As the program note explained, Cage allows interpreters “complete freedom in the choice of material they will perform on a given occasion.” Mr. Thomas interlaced stretches of some other Cage works, including Concert for Piano and Orchestra and “Fontana Mix” for tape.

For this series, part of the orchestra’s centennial celebrations, Mr. Thomas, who has been music director of the San Francisco Symphony since 1995, could have shown off his players in works by Mahler and Beethoven. Instead he adventurously explored the heritage of flinty individualism that runs through American music. The risk paid off, because the hall was packed with eager listeners.

After intermission on Tuesday, with the stage reset, the program gave the orchestra chances to demonstrate its full symphonic excellence. There were a sonorous performance of Cowell’s craggy “Synchrony” (1930) and, to conclude, a stunning account of Varèse’s path-breaking “Amériques,” completed in 1921 (revised in 1927).

This score is a gigantic assemblage of blaring, pummeling, deafening, vehemently dissonant orchestral sounds, complete with a siren and a lion’s roar. But Mr. Thomas and his players really made music of the piece in this urgently paced and textured performance.

The program also presented the New York premiere of Mr. Adams’s “Absolute Jest” for string quartet and orchestra, composed last year. This 25-minute work takes about a half dozen motifs from Beethoven scores, mostly scherzos from the late quartets and piano sonatas, and uses them as raw materials to generate a pulsing, fidgety one-movement work that is Adams through and through. The brilliant St. Lawrence String Quartet dispatched the bustling solo parts, and the audience erupted in bravos.

A second program, on Wednesday night, began with Carl Ruggles’s “Sun-treader” (completed in 1931), a teeming, dark and pungent piece that makes this maverick sound like a crusty American Berg.

Mr. Thomas ended with a novelty, “A Concord Symphony,” the composer Henry Brant’s 1994 orchestral arrangement of Ives’s “Concord” Piano Sonata. Brant’s glittering orchestration brings out details and colors in the music that the piano cannot suggest. Yet it softens the music’s hard edges; the nostalgic episodes, though lovely, sound a little more sentimental when orchestrated.

The highlight was Morton Feldman’s 1975 “Piano and Orchestra,” so called to make clear that this 23-minute piece is not a typical concerto. The pianist Emanuel Ax distinguished himself in the solo part, which, on its surface, might not seem very hard. This pervasively soft and self-contained music emerges in staggered phrases of sustained chords and sonorities. There is sometimes a little squiggle, sometimes a hint of a melodic line. Mr. Ax played every chord and figure with beautiful voicing, elegance and the concentration of a Zen master. Now that takes impressive technique and musicianship.

And before the Feldman, Mr. Thomas finally gave his audience a helpful spoken introduction.

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