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.