American Mavericks, Part 1

by Sedgwick Clark

The American composer has no greater champion than Michael Tilson Thomas. For his first season as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, 1995-96, virtually every subscription program contained an American work. Heralding the 21st century, the orchestra’s 1999-2000 season concluded with a three-week American Mavericks festival. This year, to celebrate the orchestra’s centennial, Tilson Thomas revived the Mavericks concept and took it on tour, culminating in a week at Carnegie Hall. Darned if these concerts weren’t the hottest tickets in town, with hardly an empty seat in either house.

Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed called Tilson Thomas “a fearless musical explorer” when Musical America named him Conductor of the Year in 1995. Perhaps the most notorious of his explorations remains a performance of Steve Reich’s Four Organs at a Boston Symphony concert at Carnegie Hall on January 19, 1973. This rather severe example of minimalism–in which four organs “deconstruct” a dominant eleventh chord for 20 minutes to the rhythmic underpinning of a monotonous maraca beat (Steve’s Bolero?)–provoked a mass walkout, with audience members shouting at each other and at the performers.

Tilson Thomas recalled that “One woman walked down the aisle and repeatedly banged her head on the front of the stage, wailing ‘Stop, stop, I confess.’ ” Another quote had her banging a shoe. I wonder how he could have heard her: I was sitting about a third of the way back from the stage in the left parquet section with Joan La Barbara, who performed in two of these current Maverick concerts, and can attest that after 10 minutes it was impossible to hear the music over the uproar.

But I digress. As noted in this space a couple of weeks ago, I had looked forward to these concerts ever since their announcement, and overall there were few disappointments. The four San Francisco concerts were preceded by a week of city-wide concert, dance, film, and visual arts events, performed by violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Reiko Uchida, Alarm Will Sound/Alan Pierson, and JACK Quartet, among others.

A hugely entertaining John Cage Centennial Celebration by So Percussion and friends performing on assorted electronics at Zankel Hall (3/26) led off the first night of American Mavericks. The group writes in the program book about their concert: “John Cage believed that duration—as the only musical parameter that sound and silence have in common—was the best way to frame musical structure. It becomes like a box, or a series of compartments, into which all kinds of noisy, unusual, and beautiful things can be thrown. In this spirit, our show will be exactly 91 minutes long (4’33” multiplied by 20), a Cage-ian work unto itself.”

Seven Cage pieces (four performed simultaneously) were thus woven in with five new works by other composers to create a continuous tapestry.  The digital countdown was projected onto the stage wall so that all of the pieces and actions could be “choreographed” with precision. Isolated events dotted Zankel’s crowded stage: One man performed pushups; another who had been growing a long, black beard for over a year in anticipation of this concert cut it off. A member of So Percussion ripped through Cage’s 45’ for a Speaker (“I have nothing to say, and I am saying it”), astonishingly pronouncing the final word as the countdown reached 00:00.

Audience participation was delightfully provided by Dan Deacon in his Take a Deep Breath, which consisted of 14 instructions timed to the countdown and performed by everyone in the hall “to the utmost extreme” and “with sincerity.” Among them, hold one’s breath as long as possible and release it with “AHH” or “OHH” sounds; make non-singing, vocal, or speech sounds with your mouth, including “tongue slaps, lip smacks, pops, teeth chatter, clicks, sucking sounds, sound with the spit in your mouth, whistles, fart sounds, throat sounds, etc.”; make a series of snaps, claps, stomps, whistles, or hoots in accelerating-decelerating, crescendo-decrescendo shape; sing something to the person on your left for a minute; play any song on your cell phone at maximum volume; switch seats).

As my favorite concert companion had been scared away by my description of the evening’s projected delights, I found myself unable to respond fully to the composer’s urging, “Don’t be shy!” At some point in the work I realized that the best “performers” would be couples in love. 

NOTE: Tune in next Wednesday for Part 2, which covers the San Francisco Symphony portion of the American Mavericks festival.

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