Apr 1, 2012
The New York Times
by Zachary Woolfe
American Mavericks, with San Francisco Symphony, at Zankel
The composer David Del Tredici walked to his seat in Zankel Hall on Thursday evening accompanied by a tall, neatly dressed man wearing a leather dog collar bristling with sharp studs. It was a reminder that the spirit of San Francisco — provocative, playful, a little weird — had arrived in the cool, corporate New York of 2012.
In the San Francisco Symphony’s four-night stand at Carnegie Hall, the centerpiece of the American Mavericks festival, the music had about as much in common with your everyday orchestral program as a dog collar has with standard concert dress. But full or nearly full houses all week demonstrated that if you program these spiky, exhilarating works with pride and play them with passion, the public will turn out.
After full-orchestra concerts in Carnegie’s main auditorium on Tuesday and Wednesday led by the symphony’s visionary music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, Thursday and Friday brought chamber-scale works to Zankel Hall. Amid tremendous variety — the demonic playfulness of Lukas Foss next to the serene loveliness of Meredith Monk; eerie Del Tredici (“Syzygy,” his forbidding 1966 setting of two Joyce poems, sung by the fearless soprano Kiera Duffy) followed by convivial Lou Harrison — the musicians were consistently remarkable: fresh, powerful and energetic even at the end of four demanding programs.
There was the rare opportunity to see and hear in action the elaborate, fanciful, South Seas-inspired percussion instruments made by the composer Harry Partch. Like all of Partch’s works “Daphne of the Dunes” (written in 1958 and revised in 1967), with its slippery rhythms and tangy gamelan-style harmonies, is as much a visual spectacle as an aural one.
Other works were similarly interested in the possibility of making concert music theatrical. In addition to requiring both improvisatory freedom and exacting virtuosity Foss’s “Echoi” (1963) turns its four instrumentalists into actors; at one point the clarinetist stands up, walks to the piano and continues playing with his back to the audience. Morton Subotnick’s new “Jacob’s Room: Monodrama” uses electronics to send the vocalist Joan La Barbara’s omnivorous voice ricocheting around the hall in two spectacularly strange cadenzas.
As is to be expected in an idiosyncratic sampling of idiosyncratic composers, not all the work was to my taste. Those two cadenzas were the only moments that engaged me in Mr. Subotnick’s tedious piece. Ms. Monk’s new “Realm Variations” was energized when Catherine Payne played the improbably lyrical piccolo part and when Ms. Monk was singing, her voice warmly fragile. But when those two women weren’t front and center, “Realm Variations” drifted into slack prettiness.
Mason Bates’s “Mass Transmission” (2011), scored for organ, chorus (here the Young People’s Chorus of New York City) and electronica (a mess of radio static and light-techno beats), was inane schlock, unsatisfying in either its emptily propulsive mood or its cloyingly lyrical one. At least the brilliant organist Paul Jacobs was far better used in Harrison’s magnificent Concerto for Organ With Percussion Orchestra (1973), which has the raucous rigor and peaceful canons of a religious service on a much more enjoyable planet.
There were, unfortunately, no female composers other than Ms. Monk represented in the orchestra’s concerts. (Jennifer Higdon and Missy Mazzoli were played in recitals associated with the festival.) Native sounds and styles, particularly from Asia and Polynesia, were incorporated in works throughout the festival. (For instance the influence of African tribal rhythms is central to Steve Reich’s hypnotic “Music for Pieces of Wood,” from 1973, performed Friday.) Yet the darker, or at least more aggressive, side of these American borrowings from colonial and postcolonial cultures went unexplored.
But it was hard to argue with these thought-provoking, richly entertaining shows or the commitment that the San Francisco players brought to them. “The world that was not/Comes to pass,” Joyce wrote in the poem “Ecce Puer,” which Mr. Del Tredici set as part of “Syzygy.” Last week’s concerts provided that bracing sense of fresh creation.