Saluting Our Magnificent Mavericks
In 1964, San Francisco--maverick haven at the tail end of the Beat era and in the early days of the hippies--witnessed what is now one of the legends of late-century modern music--the premiere of Terry Riley’s “In C,” the work that began Minimalism. It was a wild event in a small, dilapidated loft in the Mission district that housed the San Francisco Tape Music Center. The police attempted to shut down the second performance, figuring the joyous audience had to be stoned.
That was then. Now the Mission is home to high fashion and high tech, and “In C” is high art. Wednesday night the San Francisco Symphony began its three-week June festival, this year devoted to what it calls American mavericks, with a concert that included a performance of “In C” in Davies Symphony Hall. Music director Michael Tilson Thomas had invited the large and enthusiastic audience to bring instruments and play along. Unfettered joy was permissible; the city has proclaimed June in San Francisco as American Mavericks Month.
Exactly what makes a maverick is left intentionally unclear; nothing could be more unmaverick-like than laying down laws. The Internet is hopping over who belongs and who doesn’t. Tilson Thomas told his audience at Wednesday’s introductory concert, “Meet the Mavericks,” that he selected composers who think differently about music and themselves and through their freshness and edge cause us to think differently about ourselves.
In the end, he has mostly chosen the composers he cares about. His intent is revelation, and that makes the festival personal, about MTT and his relationship to the American musical scene and to this city. It is a festival the likes of which few, if any, traditional musical institutions would dare. A few years ago, the New York Philharmonic surveyed some of the same composers, such as Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles, and called them, condescendingly, “eccentrics.”
As a chamber music preview for the festival, Tilson Thomas began the evening introducing works by Ives, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Milton Babbitt that were performed by members of the orchestra and guest soloists. Large video screens projected photographs of the composers and examples of their scores. Each piece seemed selected as an example of a composer putting something into his work that previously hadn’t belonged in concert music. The performances were exciting, and the audience responded with thrilled applause that grew in intensity piece to piece as the feeling of inclusiveness built to a climax with “In C.”
The Ives example was the second of his “Three Quarter-tone Pieces for Two Pianos” from 1924. It was played with magnificent energy by Alan Feinberg and Julie Steinberg on grands tuned a quarter-tone apart. Its “out-of-tune” ragtime dance seemed to explode into unimagined worlds of sound; hearing it was like suddenly entering another dimension.
Cage’s 1942 “Credo in US” calls for the choice of radio or phonograph as a musical instrument as part of a percussion quartet. Cage had suggested that a bombastic record be used, say, the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, or just take a chance with the radio dial. Tilson Thomas, who conducted, tried an unusual approach and recorded a collage of period music and radio, beginning with the schlocky ‘40s “Warsaw Concerto” and ending with excerpts from “The Red Skelton Show.” It certainly helped produce the shock of something invading the formal world of an otherwise rhythmically intricate piano and percussion score, and was hugely entertaining. But the idea of “period practice” invading “modern” American music is a fascinating and touchy one, its quaintness as much the shock of the old as the new.
Feldman’s “Piece for 4 Pianos” from the early ‘60s asks each pianist to play the same laconic chords but at his or her own pace, and the feeling in this meditative music is of a quiet big bang (a small bang?) where space expands out of single musical points. In Babbitt’s “Philomel,” written the same year as “In C” and spectacularly sung by opera star Lauren Flanigan, there was more expansion. Written for soprano soloist and a four-channel tape of an electronically modified soprano, it simultaneously sets and comments upon a modern poem by John Hollander taken from Ovid. The music seems to enter into the inchoate mind of the ravished maiden whose tongue is cut out by her rapist as she is transformed by the gods into a nightingale in a mad scene that gives visceral sensation of the loss of language but discovery of song.
“In C,” after that, was pure celebration. MTT employed a long intermission to rehearse audience participants in the 53 simple melodic fragments that are freely repeated against a pulse. He shaped the performance by encouraging individuals or sections of the chamber-sized orchestra on stage and the audience players scattered through the auditorium to play out or not. The loud trumpet in my row didn’t comply, but most others seemed to. Riley wasn’t on hand, and word is that he suspected the wrong kind of circus. But the effect had a certain kind of magic after all, a sense of everyone being part of something big and important.
It also felt the start of something big and important. Major orchestral and instrumental works by Ives, Cowell, Harrison, Cage, Reich, Copland, Adams, Zappa and many others will be performed by the San Francisco Symphony, Steve Reich and Musicians and the New World Symphony.
* The American Mavericks Festival continues through June 24, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. (415) 864-6000; https://www.americanmavericks.com
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