Tuesday, March 20, 2012

American Mavericks Festival Wrap-Up 1

Well, that was fun.

The American Mavericks Festival consisted of nine performances in ten days by the San Francisco Symphony of five separate concerts filled with rarely heard, challenging, American music. The last concert wrapped up Sunday afternoon, and now the band hits the road, performing highlights from the festival in Chicago, Ann Arbor and a week-long residency in New York's Carnegie Hall. The fact that the Symphony is touring with this kind of music on their 100th birthday, instead of another Mahler festival or something similar, honestly makes me proud to be a San Franciscan.

There was some carping in the press from Joshua Kosman and others about how conservative the programming was in terms of truly new, radical music, but they were missing the point. The festival is an attempt to take what was once far out of the mainstream music and make a case for it being in the American symphonic repertory.

Case in point being Lou Harrison's Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra which was my favorite piece on the first concert that also included Copland's fun, spiky Orchestral Variations and the monumental Henry Brant orchestration of the Concord Sonata by Charles Ives. Harrison's music is aging so well and so beautifully it is a mystery that it's not already a part of the core repertory for American orchestras and chamber ensembles, but it will be eventually. Organ soloist Paul Jacobs and conductor MTT, Robin Sutherland on keyboard, and a small battery of percussion artists gave a precise, thrilling performance.

Henry Partch (1901-1974), the crazy, gay California hobo who made his own instruments and his own tuning system, was represented by a group from Los Angeles using Partch's original instruments at a Sunday afternoon chamber music concert above. Both the music and the performers were sensationally good, and their evocation of an earlier California were resonant, funny, and mysterious.

The 1932 San Francisco with its sound description of newspaper hawkers in the fog reminded me of the old San Francisco Chronicle hawker on the corner of 18th and Castro in the 1970s when I first moved to town. There used to be a late-night/early-morning edition of the paper and the moment it arrived, you would hear his ancient, emphysema-tinged voice bellowing "KRAAAAAAAAAWWWWWNICKLE" like a foghorn. The sung and spoken 1941 Barstow, depicting the viscitudes of various characters stuck hitchhiking in that hellhole, also took me straight back to similar experiences in the same desert town in the late 1960s. There's probably somebody still stuck hitchhiking there even as I'm typing these words.

It was also a treat watching members of the Symphony getting to shine in smaller ensembles during the festival, such as the string quartet above (left to right) of Dan Carlson & Amy Hiraga, violins, Jonathan Vinocour, viola, and Peter Weyrick, cello. They played San Francisco composer Terry Riley's first string quartet, G String, and though the music evaporated in my head, the playing was so beautiful by the individual players that it could have happily gone on much longer.

Concluding the program was Morton Subotnick's Jacob's Room Monodrama 2012 with his wife Joan La Barbara showing off a whole roster of her extended vocal techniques, and though the piece didn't do much for me one way or the other, La Barbara above was just plain awesome, and along with Jesse Stiles above as music supervisor/electronics, they played with spatial relationships in Davies Hall in some of the most sophisticated ways I have experienced in that auditorium.

More to come.

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