Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Rock Carnegie Hall

United StatesUnited States  American Mavericks: Soloists, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Carnegie Hall (Stern Auditorium and Zankel Hall), New York City. 27-30.3.2012 (BH)

27 March (Stern)
John Cage
: Song Books (1970)
Henry Cowell: Synchrony (1930)
John Adams
: Absolute Jest (2011; New York premiere)
Edgard Varèse
: Amériques (c. 1918-1921; rev. 1927)

28 March (Stern)
Carl Ruggles
: Sun-treader (1926-1931)
Morton Feldman
: Piano and Orchestra (1975)
Charles Ives
(orch. Henry Brant): A Concord Symphony (c. 1916-1919; orch. 1994)

29 March (Zankel)
Harry Partch
: Daphne of the Dunes (1958; rev. 1967)
Mason Bates
: Mass Transmission (2011; New York premiere)
David Del Tredici
: Syzygy (1966)
Lou Harrison
: Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra (1973)

30 March (Zankel)
Steve Reich
: Music for Pieces of Wood (1973)
Meredith Monk
: Realm Variations (2012; New York premiere)
Lukas Foss
: Echoi (1963)
Morton Subotnick
: Jacob’s Room: Monodrama (2012; New York premiere)

I have heard Jessye Norman sing with commanding darkness in Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. I have heard her in Richard Strauss (with the late Geoffrey Parsons) that stirred every cell in my body. But I have never – until this night at Carnegie Hall – seen her sitting at a small wooden table and using a typewriter, later playing playing chess with musicians, and all while Michael Tilson Thomas is mixing fruit in a blender. The nonstop party – a half-hour culled from John Cage’s Song Books – was the opening knockout in Carnegie’s week of “American Mavericks” with the San Francisco Symphony.

An inspired choice, Ms. Norman joined Joan La Barbara and Meredith Monk, the latter two with legendary Cage-ian credentials. (La Barbara was recently in Berlin, where she performed one of this cycle’s songs that instructs the singer to “Leave the stage by going up [flying] or by going down through a trap door. Return in the same way wearing an animal’s head.”) The stage set was anchored by three small sheds against the back wall (with roll-down screens for image projection, often from cameras trained on the performers), five skinny poles with Dan Flavin-style fluorescent tubes, and a variety of props and instruments scattered onstage.

At one point Norman’s voice emerged after being electronically processed—perhaps the closest we’ll get to hearing her do Kaija Saariaho. Later La Barbara took a gift-wrapped box and offered it to various audience members before returning to the stage. But Monk may have had the timeliest bit, donning a black apron over a white coat and intoning, “The best form of government is no government at all, and that will be what we will have when we are ready for it.” Above all, credit is due to Carnegie Hall (and the San Franciscans, of course) for taking the kind of risk not usually encouraged in large institutions.

Requiring a massive orchestra bulging with percussion, Henry Cowell’s Synchrony was originally composed for the choreographer Martha Graham. Mark Inouye, the orchestra’s principal trumpet, opened the densely plotted ride with a steely solo—done so confidently that during the applause, he was asked to stand twice. After the introduction, three piccolos weigh in, and the bulk of the work is charged with shifting masses of orchestral color—Cowell was one of the first to deploy tone clusters—and the mysterious result made an illuminating, rare treat.

I wish I had felt more satisfied by John Adams’s latest, Absolute Jest, which takes its cue from Beethoven. The striking opening and ending—the latter with some eerie piano and percussion chords that hang in the air—frame excerpts from over a half-dozen of the master’s late string quartets and elsewhere, all incorporated into Adams’s buzzing ostinatos, which for me outstayed their welcome. A quote from the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was an amusing exclamation point, but no more. The evening ended with a sweeping, complex and thrilling reading of Varèse’s Amériques, anchored by fifteen percussionists along the back wall. If Tilson Thomas’s tempo was perhaps a mite too fast, robbing the result of some of its tension, it was still a magnificent performance, showing the orchestra at its most formidable—and almost shockingly loud at the conclusion.

The second night will probably be recalled as one of the best of the year, starting with Carl Ruggles’s monumental Sun-treader. (Why this score doesn’t appear more often – especially as a curtain-raiser – is a mystery.) Tilson Thomas described its “choleric intensity,” and that’s exactly how the San Francisco musicians approached it. As the energy increased, I felt encased in a capsule jettisoning the earth’s gravity, or perhaps inside the controls of a giant kinetic sculpture, stalking the continent. If the Ruggles took one’s breath away, so did the ravishing Piano and Orchestra by Morton Feldman, with Emanuel Ax—again an unusual choice, but a smart one—in implacable form over the 25-minute span. With the care of a microbiologist, Tilson Thomas led the ensemble in tightly controlled masses—sometimes just puffs of sound—almost always at a very low volume. The slightest change in detail had a major impact; the hiss of maracas entering registered like an earthquake.

A bit of skepticism about the final work, Charles Ives’s A Concord Symphony, quickly evaporated a few moments after the orchestra began. (The entire week the ensemble, performance-wise, was flying at a very high altitude.) Henry Brant’s orchestration of Ives’s magnificent Concord Sonata is muscular, imaginative—and best, actually sounds like Ives. Turbulence defines “Emerson,” the first movement, with the warmth of strings—sometimes with Ravellian lushness—interrupted by percussion punctuation marks and some stomping brass. “Hawthorne” is raucous, showing the chameleonic ability of the ensemble, which at one point, out of nowhere, evokes a jazz band, before the simplicity of “The Alcotts” brings gorgeous pillars for the horns and strings. The opening of the finale, “Thoreau,” is searching, restless—the mood vacillating between anxious uncertainty and spacious grandeur. Brant has given the piano sonata even more spaciousness and a thrilling palette.

The third concert had its own live-and-in-person maverick in the form of David Del Tredici, who showed up at Zankel Hall wearing a black blazer, and holding a leash attached to a spiked leather collar worn by his companion. (And people say classical music is dull.) Del Tredici was on hand for his Syzygy, which Tilson Thomas joked, has “haunted my dreams and nightmares.” Scored for large chamber ensemble plus soprano and horn (respectively, the superb Kiera Duffy and Nicole Cash), it uses texts by James Joyce to spectacularly quixotic effect. (Words were helpfully projected on the back wall.)

The evening opened with Dean Drummond’s virtuoso ensemble Newband, renowned for its performances using the exotic instruments of Harry Partch. Daphne of the Dunes, one of Partch’s most entrancing creations, deploys such oddities as the Boo (a series of stacked bamboo tubes, brought to furious life by Jared Soldiviero), delicate Cloud Chamber Bowls and the Gourd Tree. Partch is one of the composers for whom the “maverick” moniker is no exaggeration, confirmed by the noisy ovation for Drummond and his crew. In contrast, Mason Bates’s new piece about the information age, Mass Transmission—well intentioned as it may be—came across as a bit safe in this context, despite some fine work by organist Paul Jacobs, the composer on laptop, and the disciplined work by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, all led by Donato Cabrera. Bates’s electronic core seemed rhythmically earthbound, and for me the result just never took flight.

“Our own West Coast avant-garde Santa Claus” is how Tilson Thomas described Lou Harrison, whose Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra ended the evening. With Jacobs again at the organ, and many of the same percussion wizards who had triumphed in the Varèse, the ensemble evokes a clamorous gamelan procession in the first movement, an homage to Franck in the last, and in between gives a nod to Messiaen. Delight at watching a set of oxygen tanks get swatted was only equaled by the sight of Jacobs’s arms and legs madly dashing around the keyboard and pedals, like some kind of demented octopus.

Some of the same percussionists opened the final night (standing in a semicircle) with Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood—mesmerizing to watch, especially as one grasped the difficulties facing the player maintaining the central, rock-solid beat. He was quickly engulfed in Reich’s ever-shifting patterns, all adroitly done. More San Francisco musicians joined Meredith Monk’s vocal sextet for Realm Variations, showcasing the orchestra’s piccolo player, Catherine Payne. If the result didn’t quite have the variety implied by the title, there was plenty to enjoy in the musicians’ keen commitment to maintaining Monk’s seductive surfaces, and many in the audience responded with cheers.

Another premiere was on hand by Morton Subotnick, Jacob’s Room: Monodrama, a perspective on the Holocaust. Conductor Jeffrey Milarsky showed his continuing finesse with new works, leading a small chamber ensemble and in back, Ms. La Barbara—singing, making guttural utterances and whispering. Most haunting were two cadenzas, with her voice electronically processed and ricocheting around the room. But judging from the audience response, the night’s high point for many was Lukas Foss’s Echoi (interesting how two of the week’s most striking contributions came from the mid-1960s) with Jack Van Geem (percussion), Carey Bell (clarinet), Peter Wyrick (cello) and Jeremy Denk on piano. In four movements, the piece is daunting: the quartet can rarely rest, always remaining alert to the whiplash changes in timbre or meter. And in the finale, Foss’s expressed desire for “hundreds and hundreds of notes” results in a dense rain, falling as fast as those onstage can deliver.

Bruce Hodges