Thursday, March 22, 2012
American Mavericks Festival Wrap-Up 3
The other big news at the San Francisco Symphony's American Mavericks Festival were the three world premieres commissioned by the orchestra from Mason Bates (below right, with organist Paul Jacobs and conductor Donato Cabrera), John Adams, and Meredith Monk.
Mass Transmission by Mason Bates was a sweet, pretty piece for chorus, organ and electronics whose vocal writing sounded disconcertingly like John Adams (below center) in his early "Harmonium," the breakthrough work Adams wrote for the San Francisco Symphony in the 1970s.
"John Adams should sue," I was thinking, but Mass Transmission was immediately followed by Adams's own Absolute Jest, which was filled with pilfered, reworked tunes from the scherzos of Beethoven's string quartets. The 25-minute piece was written for the Saint Lawrence String Quartet to play as soloists with and against the whole large orchestra, but as Axel pointed out, the piece was overscored and the quartet was frequently lost in the hubbub.
I am not sure about the work as a whole but do know that the last five minutes made my body tingle with pleasure, which is usually a good sign that this is music I'm going to eventually love. It was also a reminder that John Adams, no matter how one feels about his music, is a truly gifted by the gods composer, and hearing his work premiered and repeatedly performed at the San Francisco Symphony over the last 40 years has been one of the treats of our Bay Area lives.
Realm Variations by Meredith Monk, above center, was a chamber orchestra piece where half the instruments were singers intoning non-language syllables. The sounds were an extreme range of timbres, from Catherine Payne on piccolo (above right) to Sidney Chen (above left and below center) singing bass.
The mood was slow and trancelike, and I rather enjoyed it, particularly the exquisitely expressive playing of Symphony Associate Concertmaster Nadya Tichman on violin. The only disappointment was that everyone was seated in front of scores rather than wandering the stage, in choreography by Meredith Monk, who has long been famous for her mixture of music and movement. The symphony musicians were certainly capable and game for anything, as they demonstrated during the John Cage Song Books, and the Meredith Monk singing ensemble has always known how to move.
There was other cool stuff being played at the concerts too, such as the early Steve Reich minimalist Music for Pieces of Wood, with the awesome Jack Von Geem, Raymond Froehlich, David Herbert, Tom Hemphill, and James Lee Wyatt III above turning in a mesmerizing performance while doing nothing more than beating wood together for fifteen minutes.
There was also Emanuel Ax playing Morton Feldman's Piano and Orchestra, which is the first non-short Feldman piece I have ever heard, and it was the most trancelike music of the festival, turning me into a Feldman convert at last. Even the Saturday night audience was mostly great, and stayed perfectly quiet during the soft, silence-filled piece.
Plus there was Lukas Foss' Echoi which started out sounding very arid, arty, 1960s atonal and boring, and then got progressively more interesting. The adventurous performers were (above, left to right) Jack Van Geem on percussion, Carey Bell being sensationally amusing on clarinet, Peter Weyrick holding down the fort on cello, and Jeremy Denk completely over the top on the piano
Let's just hope it doesn't take another dozen years to program another version of this festival, which simultaneously stretches the members of the orchestra, its audiences, and the world of music itself.