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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Sunday, March 25, 2012

AMERICAN MAVERICKS NIGHT THREE, by James Leonard

The last night was by far the best night of the three nights of Michael Tilson Thomas & the San Francisco Symphony’s American Maverick concerts.

Not that they didn’t perform superbly all three nights with a tight ensemble, well-balanced colors, careful dynamics, and seemingly flawless technique. But on the previous nights the music was garbage as often as not, and no amount of technique can turn garbage into gold.

But with Cark Ruggles’ Sun-Treader and Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, MTT & the SFS finally got to play true modernist masterpieces, and they gave them performances as great as any ever heard in Hill Auditorium. Sun-Treader is an extremely unlovely and unlovable work with gargantuan dissonances, grinding rhythms, and groaning melodies, but it is beautiful in its way, and a more compelling performance in impossible to imagine – primarily because no other orchestra and conductor are ever likely to play it in Hill again.

Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra is the opposite of Sun-Treader in just about every way: it’s incredibly quiet with extremely spare textures – and virtually no melodies just motive, no rhythms just tempo, and no motion just stasis. But with Emmanuel Ax at the piano, MTT & the SFS made compelling music that fused deep sensuality with profound spirituality.

After the intermission, MTT & the SFS played Henry Brant’s orchestration of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata. The orchestration was a success, adding, enhancing, and clarifying Ives’ sometimes clotted colors and textures. The performance was a success, too, making the best possible case for the orchestration and the work. But the music is, in a word, boring - because, like most of Ives’ music, it’s incoherent. If the composer had any idea of what he was doing when he quoted Beethoven’s Fifth and Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, it doesn’t show, and if he had any idea where he was going from moment to moment, from movement to movement, or even from start to finish, it doesn’t show. As too often in Ives, invention outstrips sense, and all that’s left is a buzzing, blooming confusion.

But in the end, so what? Like all the rest of the music performed over the last three nights, at least the Ives’ piece hasn’t been played to death. And for this critic, that was enough to justify all everything – except Cage’s Song Books, the worst piece of crap I’ve ever heard played in Hill Auditorium.


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