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.
posted by John Hilton at 5:00 p.m. | 0 comments
Sunday, March 25, 2012
AMERICAN MAVERICKS NIGHT TWO, by James Leonard
The second night of Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony play more or less modern more or less American music opened with what I'd call the worst piece of music I've ever heard if there were any real music in it.
But there wasn't a note of music in John Cage's Song Books - lots of gibberish, plenty of nonsense, and a whole lot of balderdash, but no music whatsoever. There were texts "sung" by three women to any random vocal noise that went through their heads. In the case of Jessye Norman, that'd be quasi-operatic howling. In the case of Joan La Barbara, that'd bleeps, bloops, and burps. In the case of Meredith Monk, that'd be screams, screeches. and shrikes. These noises were accompanied by a handful of musicians from the orchestra making occasional noises on their instruments or anything else that came to hand. And for all the work's half-hour duration, the performers wandered across an onstage set reminiscent of a very cheap off-off-Broadway production.
The first two minutes of this farrago was fairly funny - especially Monk's chicken-imitation. But it was annoying after five minutes, irritating after ten minutes, and infuriating after fifteen minutes. Naturally, the Hill Auditorium audience gave it a standing ovation. I booed long and loud, the first time I've ever booed a classical concert.
The second half was much better mostly because it featured real pieces of music. Henry Cowell's Synchrony based on a theme familiar from Stravinsky was essentially a one-movement Russian symphony tarted up with tone clusters. It was no better than Cowell's Piano Concerto performed the night before, but no worse, either.
John Adams' Absolute Jest takes three themes from Beethoven - the scherzo from the Ninth Symphony plus his Opus 131 and 135 string quartets - and puts them through the orchestral blender for 25 minutes. The first two minutes were relatively interesting though not particularly funny; the rest was full of sound and fury signifying nothing and not at all funny. Adams would do well to recall that the brevity is the soul of wit.
The best came last: Edgard Varese's Ameriques, a brilliant, brutal, and beguiling work for very large orchestra augmented by sirens. Ameriques is literally bursting with everything missing from the rest of the concert's works: intelligence, passion, soul, coherence, energy, wit, and an original but authentic voice.
posted by John Hilton at 4:57 p.m. | 0 comments
Sunday, March 25, 2012
AMERICAN MAVERICKS NIGHT ONE, by James Leonard
None of the pieces performed on the first night of the three "American Mavericks" concerts were much good, though the Copland was certainly the best and the Bates was probably the worst.
Copland’s Variations for Orchestra sounded like Webern but with too many notes and not enough sense.
Henry Cowell’s Piano Concerto sounded like Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto but with tone clusters.
Mason Bates’ Mass Transmission sounded like an RVW choral piece on top of a Philip Glass organ toccata with random electronic noises on top of that.
Lou Harrison’ Concerto for Organ and Percussion was astonishingly dull considering how loud it was and astoundingly dreary considering how many drummers were on stage. With all those drummers, you’d think just once they’d wander into a compelling rhythm.
But all that’s perfectly acceptable because all four piece, even Harrison’s dull and dreary concerto, were interesting, something that can’t be said about most of the classical music concerts I’ve been to in the last thirty-four years.
Sure, Cowell’s Concerto was nowhere near in the same league as Brahms’ Second Concert, but at least we haven’t heard it 99,999,999 times. And just because the music wasn’t very good, doesn’t mean it wasn’t interesting. After all, who knew what Cowell or Harrison would do next? And even if what they do next wasn’t exactly a stroke of genius, at least it wasn’t expected. That might not sound like much – and it’s not – but for me, it's enormously more interesting than another night of Brahms.
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony played the hell out of everything, except Mass Transmission which, the U-M Chamber Choir sang the hell out of. And surprisingly the folks in Hill Auditorium gave only Copland’s Variations a standing ovation, which shows unexpected taste on the part of the local audience.
I don’t know if I splendid time was had by all, but I more or less enjoyed myself and not once did I feel the overwhelming urge to throttle someone, which hasn’t happened at a Hill Auditorium show in years.
posted by John Hilton at 4:55 p.m. | 0 comments
Monday, March 19, 2012
TALKING ABOUT MY GENERATION, by James Leonard
I was standing around the third floor of City Hall, staring out the window, waiting for an interview with Mayor Hieftje when I heard two familiar voices behind me talking about rock music from the 70s, and playing records on a turntable.
I turned around and there were police chief Barnett Jones and city attorney Stephen Postema, walking out of Postema's office and talking about Billy Joel and Japanese pressings and half-speed masters. When Postema told Jones I used to be in the record business, the chief became even more loquacious.
By the time Hieftje got off the elevator and walked over, Jones was in full flow. He was talking about how his 13-year-old wanted to see his collection and how he went downstairs and showed him some of his favorite records by his favorite bands - like the Doobie Brothers.
"But, dude!" I said. "Did he ask you what their name meant?"
"Sure," the chief replied. "I told him when I pulled it out. A doobie is a name for a marijuana cigarette - but they made some great music!"
posted by John Hilton at 3:34 p.m. | 0 comments
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