American Mavericks account

My experience with the American Mavericks

Michael Tilson-Thomas (MTT) and the San Francisco Symphony put on a great three-week concert series called American Mavericks in June 2000, devoted to exploring the world of twentieth-century American composers, and giving the symphony audience more of an opportunity to appreciate the visions and ideas of these composers.

It was a great experience, with several of the composers showing up at the concerts to discuss their work, and with MTT taking the time to place the works in a historical and musical context, explaining why he chose the pieces, and why he thinks they are significant.

I performed in two of the concerts with the Symphony Chorus, attended many of the others, and had a great time. So that I didn't lose the experience, I wrote down my thoughts about each concert, and published those thoughts here in case anybody else is interested.

Meet the Mavericks

Quartertone Piano Pieces, by Charles Ives
Duet for two pianos, tuned a quarter-tone apart. This sounded really cool - they got some neat effects by alternating descending notes on the two pianos. I wasn't sure it'd be noticeable, but the different sound jumped right out at you.

It also provided amusement the rest of the night as MTT would go to demonstrate some melody, and would have to remember to walk by the piano that was tuned weird :)

Credo in US for Piano, Percussion, and Turntable, by John Cage
Also interesting. I dunno if this was just more accessible (probably), but I liked the dynamic of this piece, and the use of the turntable didn't seem totally random the way it does in other Cage pieces.

Piece for 4 pianos, by Morton Feldman
I didn't really like this. It started with the 4 pianos in unison, and then they slowly shifted apart, kinda like Steve Reich's Drumming. But unlike Drumming, the original tune was _very_ sparse, so it was hard to tell what was going on. I think it would have been easier if the audience had been able to see the keyboard, and see how the notes were being passed from piano to piano. From where I was sitting, it could all have been one piano sound-wise.

Philomel, by Milton Babbitt, for soprano and tape
Neat idea, but I didn't really like the end result. Basically, there's a tape of electronic synthesizer (done in the early 60's - they showed a picture of the synthesizer used, and it looks like ENIAC) music, with a soprano singing, and a few backup voices. That starts, and then the soprano sings as well - the tape is her accompaniment. Some interesting echo effects done by having the soloist sing right before or after the soprano on the tape. but overall, not very satisfying.

In C, by Terry Riley
This was pretty neat. It's a collection of 53 musical phrases in C major. The idea is that each musician plays each phrase until they get bored, and then move on to the next phrase, each at their individual pace. Since each phrase has different lengths and rhythms, it is unlikely that any two musicians will be playing the same thing, unless, of course, they choose to.

MTT decided to do this as audience participation, so he had invited audience members to bring instruments along, and a surprising number of people had. I jumped seats to go sit next to a bunch of other Chorus members, so we were able to goof around musically during the actual performance. It was a pretty neat effect, but kinda difficult to keep going - the piece lasted about 40 minutes, so MTT had encouraged people to just take a break occasionally and listen to what was going on.

Maverick Icons

Suntreader, by Carl Ruggles
An apparently rare piece, with some large brass melodies that were pretty impressive. Didn't make a huge impression on me, though.

Andante, by Ruth Crawford Seeger
I really liked this piece, but I couldn't really tell you why. It's one of the few modern pieces that really pays attention to a melodic line, which helped.

Time Cycle, by Lukas Foss, featuring Lauren Flanigan as soprano
The piece itself was pretty nifty. The lyrics were thoughts about time from four authors: Auden, Housman, Kafka and Nietzsche. Pretty interesting stuff, and the settings were good as well. However, the real star was Flanigan. She also sang on opening night, and the chorus officially loves her :) She's a very physical singer, throwing her entire body into the piece, and just has a great stage presence.

excerpts from Atlas, by Meredith Monk
Meredith Monk is the daughter (niece? some relative) of Thelonius Monk. She does really wacky minimalist a cappella opera type stuff. Very cool stuff. I dunno if you've heard of her, but I'd recommend her stuff. I'm probably going to go look for a copy of Atlas myself at some point. It's kinda like Philip Glass, I guess, in that it takes very simple musical concepts and layers them on top of each other to form a very dense tapestry of sound. I enjoyed it a lot. Oh, and it was pretty cool, because Meredith was there, and had grabbed 20 or so singers from the chorus (not me, alas), to produce the piece along with 3 of her normal singers. So she was there performing her own piece. Hard to beat that.

Symphony #4, by Charles Ives
This symphony is about a hundred years old, but as MTT pointed out, almost every musical idea of the twentieth century was prefigured by Ives. And it's fantastic. He's basically doing sampling in his music. To make it clearer, MTT had the chorus sing four of the hymns that he's riffing off of before beginning the symphony, including the ever popular, "Nearer, My God, to Thee". Also, the staging of the symphony has a little section up in the balcony, of a few violins, and two harps, which represents the Star of Bethlehem, according to Ives.

The first movement starts off with wild melodies in the main orchestra which cut out suddenly, leaving the lilting sounds of the small group. The main orchestra fades back in, leading into a cello solo. Everything starts to slow down, until a big break, when the choir leaps in singing a hymn, with the line "Watchman, tell us of the night". There's some wacky instrumental stuff going on underneath the choir's straight unison singing. The choir fades out singing "Dost thou see its beauteous ray?" and the last thing in the movement is the "Star of Bethlehem" group playing slower and slower arpeggios.

The second movement is just astonishing. Basically, Ives took _everything_ he could think of and threw it in there. So you've got the strings playing a hymn, for instance, and the brass break in playing a show tune from Broadway. They all jump around, playing dance numbers, popular tunes, back to hymns, anything and everything that could be called music mixed into one big melting pot. I really enjoyed this - I just ended up smiling a lot because it was so fun to hear all these different musical strains mushed together. When I say they're doing different things, I mean it. This movement actually required an auxiliary conductor, who conducted the brass in a different tempo than the main conductor was conducting the strings for a section of the movement.

The third movement was not as memorable to me. It was pretty and a bit slower, but not as wacky. Fourth movement returns to quoting several of the hymns, and ends up with the chorus humming themes from Nearer, and slowly fading out once again leaving the "Star of Bethlehem" group hanging. Neat stuff.

The other cool bit about this concert was a post-concert discussion with MTT, Meredith Monk, Lukas Foss, and Lou Harrison. Just hearing these composers talk about their music and their influences was a lot of fun, even though I was dead tired. And, I mean, where else could you get those people all together, performing their work with a top-notch symphony, and then talking about it afterwards? Too cool.

A Salute to Duke Ellington

Actually, I was a bit disappointed with this program. It was not nearly as much fun as it could have been. Actually, the dress rehearsal was more fun than the concert. But, anyway...

They brought in the leader of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, Jon Faddis, to conduct this concert. At our rehearsal with him, he said "Don't call me a conductor, cuz I ain't. I'm just a performer like you guys." Unfortunately, he wasn't kidding - he really didn't know how to conduct. He's a heckuva trumpet player, but he didn't really know how to coordinate a large group.

The first half featured large orchestral arrangements of Ellington. It was pretty rough, because Faddis was very stiff on the podium. He stood very stiffly, clutching the baton and mechanically beating out measures, without any sort of flair, or cues to the orchestra or anything. He also apparently got lost a few times in the music.

Despite that, it went pretty well. But, by far the best piece of the first half was Taking the A Train, which featured Queen Esther Marrow as the soloist. Let me just say that this woman is amazing. After she sang three notes at the dress rehearsal, it was clear that she had more soul in her little finger than the entire symphony chorus put together. She apparently was discovered by Duke Ellington and her first professional work was soloing in the Sacred Concert premiered in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral in 1965, a role she reprised in this concert. Wow. She rocked.

She was featured in three songs in the first half, two of which didn't show her off very well, because she was buried under the symphony orchestration (and brass players who didn't know how to shut up). But the A Train arrangement was just bass, piano, drums, soloist, and trumpet soloist (Faddis). And that just _sizzled_. She could really let loose, the rhythm section had enough jazz experience to go with her, and when he didn't have to worry about an orchestra, Faddis was great as both a soloist and an accompanist on his trumpet. Wow.

The second half of the concert was a Sacred Concert, written by Ellington. It's sacred music based in jazz rather than classical themes. Several of the movements featured chorus which meant we got to be on stage with these folks. Three great soloists: Queen Esther Marrow, who I raved about above, Priscilla Baskerville, an opera-trained soprano who also could sing this stuff, and Milt Grayson, who had a great James Earl Jones kind of voice, the low growly bass. This went a lot better than the first half, because it was a small jazz band, without the rest of the symphony, so Faddis was more in his element. He didn't handle the chorus very well, which was a bit annoying, because we ended up looking pretty stupid a couple times, but that's life.

Still a lot of fun, and the one time Queen Esther launched into a call and response with the audience was a great experience ("Let me hear you say, Amen Amen!"). Faddis, with showman's instincts, urged the chorus to our feets to start clapping and singing Amen amen with her, and the whole symphony hall started clapping and singing too. It was excellent, despite me being so white that I had a hard time singing "Amen, Amen" in rhythm while maintaining clapping. D'oh.

The World of George Antheil

I missed this concert, which I now regret. Friends of mine who went said it was astoundingly cool. The highlight was apparently Ballet Mecanique, which is scored for sixteen player pianos, two grand pianos, seven electric bells, three xylophones, four bass drums, a tam-tam, a siren, and three airplane propellors. They had never had the technology before to synchronize the sixteen player pianos, so this was apparently one of the first performances to match the composer's original intent. Those who went said that it brought down the house, earning a standing ovation.

A Salute to Lou Harrison

I didn't know much about Lou Harrison before this evening, but I went early to listen to the half-hour pre-concert talk, which was very informative. He seems like a grand old guy. One of the things I really like about him is that, unlike many modern composers, he doesn't scorn melody. In fact, he loves melody, and melodic lines are an important part of all of his pieces. Another thing that was cool is that he and his life-partner, William Colvig, made many instruments which had neat conceptions and were used in this evening's performance.

In particular, their American gamelan was way nifty. The gamelan, as most of you know, is a Balinese or Indonesian set of percussion instruments, that look like xylophones, often involving bamboo construction. Harrison heard a gamelan orchestra in the 1930's and thought they were way cool, but had no way of obtaining access to a set. So he made his own. The little xylophones were constructed out of conduit pipes cut to appropriate lengths and screwed into 2x4 frames painted red. The big ones have suspended slabs of aluminum hung over resonators constructed out of #10 cans glued together (2 for a high note, 4 or 5 for a low note). Very cool stuff.

Harrison himself was at the concert, and spoke a few words about each piece before they were performed. He seemed like a great guy that really enjoyed being surrounded by music, and was unfailingly polite to the many people that came up to him and said hi.

Harrison apparently spent some time as a dance accompanist, and a lot of his work is overtly influenced by dances. The second movement of his Third Symphony, which was performed this evening, consists of three dances, a reel in honor of an Irish friend, a waltz, and an estampie, which is a peasant dance, featuring lots of stamp like percussion (it's from the same root as stampede apparently).

The symphony was very pleasant - as I noted before, it's very melodic which is unusual and pleasant in a modern composer.

The highlight of the evening was the Suite for Violin and American Gamelan though. This is a series of dance movements, including an Air, a Chaconne, another Estampie, etc. The violin soloist was Chee-Yun, a young woman from Korea. She was outstanding. She, like Lauren Flanigan, throws her entire body into the music, and this music was perfect for that kind of presence. The songs themselves were pretty simple, with shimmering rhythms and patterns being played by the percussionists on the Gamelan, with the melody of the violin cutting through it all. And Chee-Yun did a great job - if you get a chance to see her, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

The finale of the program was the Organ Concerto with Percussion Orchestra. This involved several home-made instruments again, including wooden drums (i.e. plywood boxes, suspended from above), bells made by cutting the bottoms off of compressed-air canisters (the big industrial kind), and pots and pans suspended. Also included piano, celeste, chimes and vibraphone as a bridge between the unpitched percussion and the pitched organ. The percussion part was excellent I thought, and the organ playing was good, but the overall effect wasn't as synergistic as one might have hoped. Still a neat piece though.

And it all ended up happily with a standing ovation given to Lou Harrison with the spotlight on him at the end of the concert.

America Underground

Dance/4 Orchestras, by John Cage
This piece by John Cage divides the full symphony orchestra into four chamber orchestras, located in different locations throughout the hall. Each orchestra is conducted separately, taking their own tempo, and proceeding through their music at the rate that they choose. The music itself, unlike Riley's In C from the opening night, consists of phrases of no more than three notes, so it sounds like instruments squeaking and chirping in indeterminate harmonies. Combined with the randomness of each orchestra going at its own pace, and the piece was very difficult to sit through. Like much of Cage's work, it is easier to appreciate the conception than the actual result.

Adventures Underground, by David Del Tredici
This work featured Lauren Flanigan, the soprano from the opening night and Maverick Icons. I actually came to this concert in large part to see her sing again, and I wasn't disappointed, as she was easily worth the price of admission by herself. Adventures Underground recount musically the tales of Alice in Wonderland. Two movements were performed, The Pool of Tears and The Mouse's Tale, and each was introduced by Flanigan reading the appropriate section from the book. She was an outstanding reader, reciting the words with excitement and gusto. I actually didn't like the pieces themselves, as they involved too much squeaking (I was told later that it included 29 high D-flats), but Flanigan performed it all with aplomb. She really pulled off an impressive coup as I'm not sure that the piece would have been so well-received (several minutes worth of standing ovation) with any other soprano singing the part. I know very little of most soloists, but I have to admit that I would buy tickets to see her perform any repertoire at this point.

Some of The Mouse's Tale was entertaining musically, as Del Tredici imitated Lewis Carroll's gimmick of making the text look like a tail weaving down the page. Del Tredici gave his music a similar look on the page, by passing 2 note phrases from part to part, and having been warned to look for that by the program notes, it was cool to see notes ripple back and forth between sections.

Piano Concerto, by Henry Cowell
The three movements of this concerto are entitled Polyharmony, Tone Cluster, and Counter Rhythm, so you can guess it's a modern piece already. This piece involved heavy use of tone clusters, striking several adjacent notes with a fist or the forearm. One would think that this would create an ugly dissonant effect, but Cowell used it very effectively, mixing it in with a melodic line to create a pleasing combination. I liked the piece far more than I would have guessed from its description.

Again, credit for that should probably go to Ursula Oppens, the pianist. She was outstanding, pounding the piano with both forearms as necessary, and then quickly shifting to her hands to play a quick melodic line. The orchestration was also excellent, including several playful bits in Counter Rhythm with the piano and symphony bouncing notes back and forth. Fun piece.

Ameriques, by Edgard Varese
While this was declared the highlight of the program by many, it left me a little cold. Interesting percussion effects, and the symphony performed it well, but it didn't really stand out from any other nice orchestral piece to me. Maybe I just don't have the ear.

Steve Reich and Musicians

Music for 18 Musicians, by Steve Reich
I first heard of Steve Reich when I randomly went to a percussion quartet concert at Stanford, where they performed the first movement of Reich's Drumming. It was an incredibly cool piece, where a single 12-note pattern was established, and then each drummer phased away from the others so they ended up one note apart. I later got a CD of the entire piece, and it's amazing.

Reich is apparently among the first minimalist composers. Music for 18 Musicians is his best-known work, and one that I had not heard before this concert. It was fantastic, both as an auditory and a visual experience. Once it started, the sound did not let up for an hour, as it created almost a trance-like state, with pianos and xylophones and marimbas providing a continuous musical background to music provided by four sopranos, a violin, cello, and 2 clarinets, not to mention patterns beat out on the various percussion instruments.

The piece has no conductor, so it uses the vibraphone to signal musical shifts between mini-movements. It was dramatic to watch as one of the musicians would stop what he was doing, walk over to the vibraphone, pick up the mallets, and after judging the current time, play a sequence of four or five notes, and as they hit the last note, the other musicians would shift to the new musical pattern.

Lots of other neat visual stuff. Because the various percussion players were needed to do several tasks, they would often switch off. Especially on the tiring stuff like the player who was banging out the beat on the marimba, continuously hitting the same pair of notes over and over again. Another player would walk over, pick up a spare set of mallets, move his mallets directly over the current player, and take over without missing a beat. This happened many times throughout the piece, but it was neat to see the seamless transition each time.

Another nice visual moment was one portion where a pattern was being beaten out by a player on a marimba. Another player walked over, picked up a set of mallets, and played the same pattern an octave lower next to him, so that their arms were moving in unison together. A third player walked over, and I was trying to figure out where he'd fit in. He picked up a set of mallets, and facing the other two, started playing his interposing pattern upside down between them. He actually had to reach between the other two players arms to hit his notes, and so they all had to be perfectly in sync for it to work. It was cool to watch the very precise choreography they had to do to make the pattern work for three players to be playing the instrument at once. And they kept it up without a mistake for five minutes. Cool stuff.

The overall effect was just stunning as I said. When it ended, I really had no idea how long it had been going on - it could have been five minutes or five hours. And the musicians got a well-deserved standing ovation as everybody leapt to their feet upon the conclusion of the piece. I've got to go find a recording of this piece for myself.

Hindenburg, by Steve Reich and Beryl Korot
Beryl Korot is a video artist who is also Steve Reich's wife. Hindenburg is the first act of a multimedia opera they are writing which will incorporate a live performance of his music with a video presentation of hers. If this is any example of the final product, it's going to be amazingly cool.

I really liked how Reich used three tenors in the first scene, It could not have been a technical matter, the words uttered by the German ambassador in response to the crash. They sing one round of a melody together, then each one starts it one beat after the next, creating an overlapping effect. Korot made the connection clear, starting off with the words "It could not have been a technical matter" appearing on screen in time with the singing in unison, and then, splitting the words into three lines, with each set appearing when the corresponding singer got there.

I was a bit bemused by the video clips used, which were interviews with various people associated with the crash - they appeared and disappeared so fast that you could barely register them, and I often couldn't figure out what the talking head said.

But the overall coordination was excellent between the conductor wearing headphones, and the video presentation. And I really like the style of Reich's music. It's fun to listen to. I'm not sure that it has any great musical ideas in it, but it's a good time.

After the concert, Reich and Korot stuck around and talked with Michael Tilson-Thomas on stage for a while, as well as taking some questions from the audience. One thing that I look forward to is their plan to release this work as a DVD eventually, once it is completed. The remaining movements will be called Bikini (speaking of the atoll, and the effects of the nuclear bomb testing) and Dolly (the cloned sheep, with meditations on the effect of genetic engineering and how that will affect us). Could be pretty neat stuff, and I'd certainly go see a performance of it :).

John Adams conducts Adams to Zappa

I was pretty unimpressed with this concert. I don't know if it was because I was tired, or because my seat wasn't very good, or because the symphony wasn't up to par, or whether the music just wasn't interesting. Possibly some combination of all of the above.

The New World Symphony performed this evening. This is a symphony started by Michael Tilson-Thomas in 1987 as a sort of finishing school for aspiring musicians. The dilemma of a symphony-musician-to-be is that most symphonies will not take a musician with no experience, but one can't get that experience without joining a symphony. So, MTT created the New World Symphony in Miami to bridge that gap, taking many of the most talented musicians coming out of school, give them a three-year fellowship where they perform full-time with the system, with extra work on solo and chamber work, as well as advice on how to handle auditions. It seems to have achieved its purpose: 95% of its alumni go on to musical careers, many with major symphonies.

Anyway, it was an interesting experience to look at the stage and see nobody older than 30; the average age of the musicians in the NWS is 24.5, according to one blurb. And they were incredibly good, as might be expected from a symphony which is choosing from among the best college graduates. However, it still felt to me as if there were something lacking. Maybe some level of emotion. It was hard to tell, and it may just have been crankiness on my part.

Or it could possibly be attributed to the conductor. John Adams is one of the most well-known modern composers. However, he didn't really make an impression on me with his conducting, despite conducting his own work. I also wasn't that impressed with his compositions, Shaker Loops and Grand Pianola Music. Grand Pianola Music had some interesting minimalist strains, especially in having the two pianos being slightly out of phase with each other in time, but after having heard Reich's work on Saturday, it didn't really measure up.

The Zappa piece, Dupree's Paradise was interesting, but more for the incongruity of having a Frank Zappa piece being performed at Symphony Hall than anything else.

Study No. 6, by Conlon Nancarrow was, as is common for modern music, more interesting conceptually than it was in performance. Apparently, Nancarrow was very interested in experimenting with polytemporality, having different instruments being in different times altogether. He wrote most of his compositions for player piano, actually, because most musicians were not skilled enough to handle the weirdness of his work. However, given 50 years of modern music, the modern musician can more adroitly handle the funky rhythms inherent in different beats. This piece was adapted from the original, and scored for two pianos, and a wind ensemble. One piano is in a five-beat pattern, one piano in a four-beat pattern, and the wind ensemble plays its lilting melody in a three-beat pattern above both. Interesting conception, like I said, but the actual result wasn't very interesting to me.

I was disappointed with this concert, especially after having seen so many dynamite concerts over the last two weeks. But perhaps my expectations were too high, or I was burnt out from all the concert-going. Overall, the American Mavericks festival has been a blast, and a musical experience unlikely to be matched any time soon, and I feel very fortunate to have been part of it.

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