Michael Tilson Thomas has always had a special affinity for the music of American composers. The Los Angeles-born music director of the San Francisco Symphony since 1995, he has championed those pioneers who, according to an SFO website, “created a new American musical voice for the 20th Century.” In 2000, Thomas organized the first “American Mavericks” festival devoted to such seminal figures as Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, John Cage and Charles Ives. This month, he is touring the next iteration of “American Mavericks” in Chicago, Ann Arbor and New York City.
I was in the Orchestra Hall audience ten days ago for several reasons. Foremost was to hear the orchestra in its first Chicago appearance in 10 years. I heard them once before under the leadership of Herbert Blomstedt but wanted to hear their playing under Thomas’ direction. They performed brilliantly, playing with total commitment and keen attack, signs of an improved ensemble relishing the chance to play such challenging fare. Another reason was to hear the works on the program (Cowell, John Adams & Ives). Apart from Adams, the other mavericks are rarely heard inside Symphony Center. Finally, I wanted to see if my musical ears had grown more accustomed to Ives’ spiky, contrapuntal tonal palette. Thomas is widely viewed as the premier interpreter of Ives.
The program opened with a haunting, soaring trumpet solo from Cowell’s “Synchrony.” I hadn’t expected such a lovely melody at the start and found the rhythmic and melodic tonal clusters that followed pleasantly accessible. Cowell also taught and reportedly influenced the work of other mavericks, particularly Cage and Lou Harrison.
Adams’ newest work, “Absolute Jest” followed. It is the fourth commission he has composed for San Francisco beginning with “Harmonium” in 1981. It is hard to believe that Adams was ever a musical maverick. However, he is credited with steering music away from the dry 12-tone exercises of academic modernism and back to a more expressive and humanistic realm. His 1986 opera, “Nixon in China” broke new ground and, ever since his 2002 tribute to the victims of 9/11, “On the Transmigration of Souls”, Adams has become the default composer for orchestra programmers, a contemporary composer audiences will tolerate.
As I listened to the buoyant, yet fractured rhythms, the work had a pastiche quality that, while enjoyable in performance, did not leave a lasting impression. Afterward, reading the program notes, Adams called the piece’s short bursts “quotations”. While my ear caught, what I thought were snippets of Copland, I later learned that he was borrowing freely from Beethoven’s late quartets and even the Ninth Symphony. The inclusion of the St. Lawrence String Quartet was an interesting touch. As stand-ins for Beethoven’s quartets, they played with fierce engagement, often in attacking juxtaposition to the orchestra. It was a novel but not entirely successful experiment.
I still don’t “get” Ives but I realize that he has changed modern music’s vocabulary and earned his “American Maverick” stripes. However, Henry Brant’s rich orchestration of Ives’ “A Concord Symphony” (originally a sonata solely for piano) softened many of the piece’s rough edges and made Ives’ ideas more pronounced and palatable, particularly the sweetly melodic third movement, The Alcotts. His tribute to three other transcendental New England writers–Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau–remain a musical puzzle to my ears.
Tilson Thomas has lived with the music of these composers for many years. I left Symphony Center convinced that no other orchestra could interpret these works as convincingly and idiomatically. That opinion was evidently shared by many younger members of the audience who whooped and applauded heartily for each work on the program. The audience skewed much younger than the usual CSO audience. At least 1/3 of the crowd in the lower balcony were high school and college students. While the CSO offered heavily discounted pricing for students on their website and on Groupon, many also came because of Thomas and the orchestra’s reputation for contemporary fare. For a list of concerts in April and May with special $10 seats for students, go to www.cso.org.
Though it was satisfying to hear the SFO at all, I wonder why Chicago audiences were treated to only one program from the festival while Ann Arbor presented three full programs immediately after Chicago and New York’s Carnegie Hall is presenting all four festival programs. Tilson Thomas is a definite draw when he plays with our orchestra and a broad audience exists in Chicago for more adventuresome repertoire beyond the iconic three B’s. Was it not worth the risk of a less than full house to showcase rarely-performed works by such game-changing composers? We missed out on hearing soprano Jesse Norman and Meredith Monk perform John Cage’s “Songbooks”, early Aaron Copland and Mason Bates’ recent commission for the SFO, “Mass Transmission.” Is Chicago still too provincial in its musical tastes? I’d like to think not.
Tilson Thomas was asked when he began his tenure in San Francisco 15 years ago what he hoped people would think about the orchestra in years to come. His response: “America’s most fearless, most dangerous and most generous orchestra.” As it celebrates its 100th Anniversary, I’d say the SFO has fulfilled that mission splendidly!