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Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony

Here Comes Cacophony

The San Francisco Symphony's mavericks

by James Leonard

From the March, 2012 issue

This may hurt some. Heck, it'll likely hurt ... a lot. What it's called is American Mavericks, a series of four San Francisco Symphony concerts, March 22-25, featuring some of the hardest of hardcore repertoire by some of the baddest of badass American composers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries played by probably the most refined orchestra in the country led by surely the most sophisticated conductor the nation has ever had.

It's tough to pick the piece that will be toughest to take. Edgard Varese's massive Ameriques, in the second concert, is truly a blast, with its orchestra augmented by sirens, while Carl Ruggles' cyclopean Sun-Treader, in concert three, achieves nearly the same effect with its relentless fortissimo. Even Aaron Copland's sharp-edged Orchestral Variations from concert one is to the same composer's Appalachian Spring what a knife fight is to a quilting bee.

Not that there won't also be sublime beauty. Morton Feldman's Piano and Orchestra from concert three opens up radiant vistas of eternity with colors as luminous as the aurora borealis. And the work that follows, A Concord Symphony--Henry Brant's orchestration of Charles Ives' Concord Sonata for piano--has pages of transcendental splendor smack dab in the middle of pages of brutal dissonances; hearing them executed by a full orchestra ought to enhance the effect geometrically.

One thing's for sure: Ann Arbor will never hear these pieces better played. Since Michael Tilson Thomas became the San Francisco Symphony's music director in 1995, he's lovingly molded the orchestra into the most elegantly virtuosic band in the country, its seemingly effortless ensemble graced by apparently perfect principals.

Plus there's Tilson Thomas's deep and abiding commitment to American music of all kinds. He's done killer recordings of Gershwin's musicals and murderous recordings of Ruggles' complete works (they fit on two LPs). He's recorded virtually definitive Copland and certainly definitive Ives. A few members of the local audiences are likely still hearing stars from Tilson Thomas and the SFS's knockout performance of Ives' heavyweight Fourth Symphony back in 2002.

And that's just the orchestral concerts in Hill. There's also a chamber concert in Rackham with more of the same scored for smaller forces and featuring a new work by Meredith Monk performed with the composer.

For as much as $267 or as little as $50 per person, all four concerts can be yours. I'd call that a once-in-a-lifetime bargain ... if you can take the pain.     (end of article)

[Originally published in March, 2012.]


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