San Francisco Symphony, June 7th, 2000

Reviewed by David Bratman

Introductory "Meet the Mavericks" concert for the Symphony's "American Mavericks" festival. Informal and even great fun. The musicians mostly dressed in basic black, and the stage was strewn with instruments, including five pianos.

The first half took the form of a talk by Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra's music director, in which he introduced four chamber music works played by various musicians who'd come on stage just for the specific works.

The advertising for the "American Mavericks" festival has been full of sententious blither (suggesting, for instance, that if you work for a dot-com and dream of retiring on your stock options, you're a bit of a maverick too, so come to these concerts), but MTT didn't follow that line, defining mavericks simply as composers who take a different view of music from their contemporaries, and whose work even if it becomes accepted still has that avant-garde "edge" to it. (By that reasoning, Beethoven is definitely a maverick.)

The works were:

1. Charles Ives, Allegro from "Quarter Tone Piece for Two Pianos"
Naturally, the father of modern American mavericks goes first. Two pianos, tuned a quarter-tone apart. The result wasn't agonizing but - I use food metaphors for music a lot - sour, the way a sour gumdrop is sour. And written with a clear good humor.

2. John Cage, "Credo in Us"
One piano (mostly percussive, with some ruminative jazzy interludes), two percussionists (mostly occupied on xylophone, tin cans, and an electric buzzer), and a phonograph. Cage instructed either a phonograph or a radio, intending to get schmaltz to contrast with his percussiveness, and it sounded to me as if the performers had stuck in recordings of the kind of music and comedy shows you'd have heard on the radio when Cage wrote the piece, which was 1942, to create a period effect. Like the Ives, a work of obvious good humor. Nobody laughed, but I'm sure neither Cage nor Ives would have been offended if they had.

3. Morton Feldman, "Piece for Four Pianos"
While walking to the pianos to demonstrate something from this in his talk (full of his favorite Feldman stories and his imitation of Feldman's New York accent), MTT went past the quarter-tone piano, saying, "Whoops, not that one." Dissonant, but extremely quiet and contemplative; mostly alternating between two chords, which (as in the coda of Vaughan Williams's Sixth Symphony) it was hard to say which was the resolution. It got rather tepid applause - perhaps its ruminative quality felt like a let-down after its lively predecessors - but it was my favorite in the first half.

4. Milton Babbitt, "Philomel"
For soprano (Lauren Flanigan - she was in "Ghosts of Versailles") and tape, the latter being a mixture of synethesizer bleeps and pre-recorded soprano. Some effective dialogue between the live soprano and the taped one, but overall I could detect little coherence or logic in this. It got the most applause of the half, but that was probably for the performer, who got a real workout.

Second half: Terry Riley, "In C"
During intermission, MTT attempted to lead a rehearsal, which consisted of the orchestra members on stage (a couple dozen of them, wielding a full variety of orchestral instruments), and those members of the audience who'd brought instruments along, all playing each of the 53 cells in unison a few times. (You know how this work is written and played, right?*) MTT pointed out, and demonstrated on the piano, how one could, and should, drop out occasionally for a few bars; and he requested a certain restraint in repetition, which was enforced by having the audience read the score during the performance from a blow-up projected on screens, which gradually scrolled up, showing 4 to 8 cells at a time. "This performance will last 35 to 40 minutes," he said, "but you'll wish it was longer."

Then it was show time. In the audience, I could see a few violins and flutes, a guitar, a trombone, several people near me with hand percussion (who mostly dropped out early), and four rows behind me a trumpeter, who though he played quietly was the only player I could consistently make out amid the general welter of sound. I've heard recordings of "In C" which sounded like an unholy din, but this - my first experience with the work live - instead had the sort of all-encompassing enveloping quality of the time we chanted heya at a Mythcon honoring Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home.

MTT alternated between keeping the pulse at the piano (another pianist sat at one of the other pianos) and standing up to conduct in the way he said "Terry would do it if he were here," which was to gradually bring the sound up or down, or to highlight sections of the audience or even individual players in it: unfortunately the acoustics were such that I could rarely hear these individuals. At one point MTT jumped off the stage and walked up the aisles to better highlight people.

The seat next to me, vacant in the first half, was filled in the second by a guy occupied with filling out his ticket request for next year's season, and who left about 3/4 of the way through. Why did he bother coming?

Me, I was doing what I always do when someone plunks the score in front of me while music is playing: I was following the score. And enjoying that welter of sound and the gradually shifting cells.

At the end, standing ovation. Orchestra applauded the audience, too. MTT shook hands with an audience violinist seated near the front, as he normally would with the concertmaster. Did I wish it were longer? Well, except for the fact that it was very late by the time I got home, yes I did.

*Explanation of "In C": although performances last up to an hour (or more), the score is only two pages long on a single staff. It consists of 53 "cells", from one or two notes to several bars in length. Over a constant pulse (provided by a pianist hitting C's in octaves), any number of players playing any kind of instruments enter, each when they feel like it, playing the first cell, each moving on to the next cell when they feel like it. The piece ends when everyone arrives at the 53rd cell and then stops. It may sound like a recipe for chaos, but in practice it's a recipe for spontaneous communal music-making.

Return to David Bratman's home page for contact information. Last Updated: November 4, 2004
Copyright 2004, David Bratman