NIGHT ONE: March 22
None of the pieces performed in the first of Michael Tilson Thomas & the San Francisco Symphony’s 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 a Vaughan Willliams 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 Orchestra was astonishingly dull considering how loud it was and astoundingly dreary considering how many drummers were on stage. With nine 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 Concerto, 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 it’s enormously more interesting than another night of Brahms.
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.
NIGHT TWO: March 23
The second night 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, including a basketball. And for all the work’s half-hour duration, the performers wandered aimlessly 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, infuriating after fifteen minutes, and it lasted half an hour. The Hill Auditorium audience gave it a standing ovation. I booed long and loud, the first time I’ve ever booed at a classical concert. Apparently, this cracked up Jessye Norman. I’m glad one of us was having a good time.
The second half of the concert 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 – from the scherzo of the Ninth Symphony plus the scherzos of 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
NIGHT THREE: March 24
The last night was by far the best night of the three.
Not that Tilson Thomas and the symphony 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 so much 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.