American Mavericks, Part 2 (the Tax Man Cometh)

by Sedgwick Clark

I really should be working on my taxes . . . .

Cage, Cowell, Adams, Varèse

The first concert to involve San Francisco musicians in the series, on Tuesday in Carnegie Hall, began with the most anticipated event of the series: Cage’s whimsical 1970 Song Books, with Jessye Norman, Meredith Monk, and Joan La Barbara the unlikely trio of vocalists, and Tilson Thomas miming various actions. Cage provides nearly a hundred numbers to be executed, organized by the performers. MTT chose a half-hour selection for this occasion. Frankly, the So Percussion concert LINK the previous evening provided far more fun in Dan Deacon’s less pretentious Cage knockoff, Take a Deep Breath.

Cage said that Henry Cowell, whose Synchrony (1930) followed, was “the open sesame of new music in America.” Maybe. But except for an all-Cowell concert LINK by the American Symphony under Leon Botstein at Lincoln Center two years ago, performances of his some 1,000 pieces have been few and far between since his death. For all his purported innovations–the most influential being “tone clusters,” in which the piano keys are struck with the fist or forearm–all the works I’ve heard seem to exist more as showcases for inventiveness than cogently structured music. Still, the nearly 14-minute Synchrony begins with a gorgeous three-minute trumpet solo (beautifully played by SF’s Mark Inouye) and contains lovely moments until its abrupt ending.

A lot of people I respect venerate John Adams’s music. His Absolute Jest was composed for this Mavericks tour. It’s a sweet, inoffensive piece inspired by (in the composer’s words) “the ecstatic energy of Beethoven, who was the master of taking the minimal amount of information and turning it into fantastic, expressive, and energized structures.” The problem with such an homage is, once Absolute Jest ended, all I could remember was Ludwig van’s Ninth Symphony scherzo and the opening movement of the Op. 131 string quartet. When a Stravinsky—whom Adams often evokes rhythmically—throws in a skittish reference to Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia in Jeu de cartes or an elephantine rendition of Schubert’s Marche Militaire in Circus Polka, it couldn’t be anyone but Stravinsky. The well-received performance was undoubtedly a composer’s dream.

When influences from Stravinsky’s early ballets seep into Edgard Varèse’s Amériques (ca. 1918-21; rev. 1927), one smiles knowingly but can’t possibly escape the gruff French-American composer’s path-breakingly percussive voice. Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic performed Varèse’s complete works LINK on two roof-raising Lincoln Center Festival concerts two summers ago. Gilbert’s Philharmonic predecessors Pierre Boulez, Zubin Mehta, and Lorin Maazel also played Varèse’s music—Boulez most distinguished of all—but I don’t recall any Varèse at Carnegie since the stupendous Philly/Muti Arcana in 1985 and Cleveland/Dohnányi Amériques in 1989. Enter Michael Tilson Thomas and his virtuoso San Franciscans, who shook the rafters with a smashing, superbly played Amériques. Now Arcana, please?

Ruggles, Feldman, Ives Orchestrated

Tilson Thomas has been the master interpreter of Carl Ruggles’s Sun-Treader (1926-31) since performing and recording it in 1970 with the Boston Symphony. His Carnegie Hall performance at that time was the New York premiere. His complete recording of Ruggles’s music later that decade for CBS with the Buffalo Philharmonic and various soloists was recently released on CD for the first time on the Other Minds label. It only amounts to 80 minutes of music, of which the ca. 16-minute Sun-Treader is best known. At the Wednesday concert, the San Franciscans seemed a bit more refined than either of the recordings but without ever compromising this granite-hewn score. More Ruggles, Michael?

I know I should “get” Morton Feldman’s whisper-quiet notes and silences in Piano and Orchestra (1975). I read in James M. Keller’s astute notes of Feldman’s aesthetic alignment to the painters of the New York School. A friend explains how carefully the harmonics and pauses are composed, but I’m still left as cold as a white Rothko canvas. I’ll keep trying, but Feldman performances don’t come around often. There is no doubt, however, of the commitment and artistry of pianist Emanuel Ax, whose forays into 20th-century and contemporary music are admirable, the conductor, and the San Francisco musicians.

Charles Ives composed his “Concord” Sonata between 1916 and 1919; then he obsessively revised it until 1947. That’s 31 years. The even more obsessive American maverick, Henry Brant, took five years longer to orchestrate it (1958-1994), calling it A Concord Symphony. From the very opening the orchestral garb bears a strong resemblance to Sun-Treader’s dissonant palette, which makes sense because Ives and Ruggles were friends and knew each other’s music well. The San Francisco team’s recording of the Brant orchestration was released earlier in the year on the orchestra’s own (and very successful) label. Needless to say, it’s a “must” for all Ives fans—what the record companies used to call “a sonic spectacular.” But the live experience struck me as even more stunning, revealing overtones in the woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings that perhaps only Carnegie’s fabled acoustic can offer. Ives and Ives/Brant provide a fascinating comparison, and I strongly recommend listening to the “Concord” Sonata recordings by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Teldec) and Jeremy Denk (Think Denk Media).

Tax Deadlines Wait for No Munsonian  

Tune in next week for my pithy words on the last two Mavericks concerts.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

4/12 Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic/Jaap van Zweden; Yuja Wang, piano. Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3. Mahler: Symphony No. 1.

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