San Francisco Symphony interprets John Cage, with great results

Mark Swed
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Music Critic
Michael Tilson Thomas leads San Francisco Symphony in all-John Cage program; 'marvelous,' says Mark Swed revie

In "Lecture on Nothing," John Cage compared a piece of music to a glass of milk. "We need the glass," he wrote, "and we need the milk."

At the invitation of the San Francisco Symphony on Saturday night, actor Tim Robbins read those lines with an eloquently genial whimsy, as if to exclaim, the way Cage often did: Isn't that marvelous?

The orchestra's principal clarinetist, Carey Bell, stationed on a balcony seat over the stage of Davies Symphony Hall, invoked the needed ambience of stunned stillness, the empty glass, with the opening of Cage's very early Sonata for Clarinet.

"Or again," Robbins further read from Cage, a piece of music "is like an empty glass into at any moment anything may be poured." At that any moment, Michael Tilson Thomas cued members of his orchestra to pour liquidly indeterminate sounds suggested by drawings from Thoreau's journals that make up the score to Cage's "Renga."

Written in 1976 to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial, "Renga" was part of what may have been the first all-Cage concert given by a major American orchestra. That's a startling statistic, what with such concerts common overseas, where Cage is lionized.

"Renga" happens to be the work that Tilson Thomas chose at the end of his first season as San Francisco Symphony music director to symbolize his desire to transform American orchestral life. In June 1996, he performed "Renga" with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead joining orchestra musicians. The audience proved a touchingly friendly mix of Deadheads in full tie-dye regalia and conventionally formal classical music concertgoers.

The performance was not especially a success. But that hardly mattered compared with the hopeful mood in the hall. This was the future of broken barriers everyone wanted.

Saturday, "Renga" and all else were marvelous. There has been big-time transformation at the San Francisco Symphony, but there is further to go than we might have wished as Tilson Thomas is reaching the end of his 20th season.

The Cage program, though part of a subscription series, was a one-off. The programs earlier in the week began with Cage's early ballet score, "The Seasons," before moving on to audience favorites: Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and Stravinsky's ballet, "Pulcinella."

Deadheads were no longer obvious Saturday. The audience was traditional, with only a smattering of young people. The tech crowd that is taking over San Francisco apparently likes music only when a mixologist is doing the pouring.

Still, it was a great concert.

"The Seasons," which comes from the end of Cage's early period, was his first orchestral score. I am confident it has never been played so well. Each season is introduced by a prelude. Expression is understated. Cage's seasonal ideas came from Indian philosophy, winter through fall being the cycle of quiescence, creation, preservation and destruction.

The surface of the score is pointillist, with ever-changing melodic phrases and individual chords that become their own events. A chamber orchestra is treated like a color wheel in motion.

In a brisk 15-minute performance, Tilson Thomas made everything stand out and everything fit. The flavors of Debussy, Satie, Varèse and Virgil Thomson could be readily detected but in utterly new contexts. Nothing fit and everything fit. Mixologists could learn much from this.

Tilson Thomas' 1996 performance of "Renga" in San Francisco was with "Apartment House 1776," Cage's original companion piece that includes four vocal soloists representing Native American, Jewish, African American and Protestant musical traditions. The orchestral players were from the symphony's Youth Orchestra.

In 2012, Tilson Thomas rethought "Renga" for a Cage festival he presented in Miami with his New World Symphony, a training orchestra. Here the score served as a backdrop for a multimedia event, with other Cage pieces played simultaneously, along with a recording of Cage reading "Lecture on Nothing," and a video of '50s and '60s television commercials. It was engaging but heavy-handed.

That festival, videos of which are available on the New World Symphony website, caused Tilson Thomas to undertake a serious new look at Cage. The results were apparent in "Renga" on Saturday.

Again, many Cage pieces were offered simultaneously. This time, though, the San Francisco Symphony played. And Tilson Thomas shaped the 43-minute performance with great care.

Interpreting Thoreau's nature sketches rather than normal notations, the musicians in "Renga" have more freedom than they know what to do with. But the conductor controls dynamic and entrances, and Tilson Thomas often tied them into the text that Robbins read, as well as when other pieces came in.

Sometimes they could be a bit obvious. Cage spoke of five-finger exercises, and we heard his Suite for Toy Piano. He spoke of noises being discriminated against, and there were the sounds of an amplified cactus in "Child of Tree." Cage spoke of getting nowhere, and there was chaos in the band.

But everything worked, even the goofy Heinz pickle commercial. Trite moments were turned into insightful and often incredibly beautiful instances. Cage was treated as the master who improbably paints a glass of milk in such a way that allows us to newly appreciate the world around us.

In the middle of the performance, Tilson Thomas stopped everything and played a short musical line on the piano, one of several musical haikus Cage wrote in the early '50s. Cage had given it to Lou Harrison, and Harrison gave it to Tilson Thomas.

This felt like the moment after the milk is poured but before it reaches the glass. It also became a perfect symbol for what Tilson Thomas so marvelously made of "Renga."

He revealed we need sound and we need silence; we need movement and we need stillness; we need order and we need chaos. These are the glass and the milk.

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