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Published Saturday, December 15, 2001

'Mavericks' a delightful departure


  • WHAT: The San Francisco Symphony presents "Pan-American Mavericks," music by Henry Brant, Edgard Varese, Astor Piazzolla and Heitor Villa-Lobos
  • WHERE: Davies Symphony Hall, S.F.
  • WHEN: 8 tonight
  • HOW MUCH: $29-$85
  • CALL: 415-864-6000

    By Georgia Rowe

    WEDNESDAY NIGHT at Davies Symphony Hall, Michael Tilson Thomas launched the second week of the San Francisco Symphony's current Mavericks festival on several thousand exuberant notes. Not all of them represented the revolutionary spirit implied in the name of this two-week specialty event, and not all of them proved especially engaging in performance. But the evening as a whole provided a diverting departure from the usual concert-hall fare.

    Last week, Tilson Thomas and the orchestra explored the music of Italian composers; this week's program, which has its final repeat tonight, features works gathered under the title of "Pan-American Mavericks." Wednesday's concert included the world premiere of "Ice Field" by American composer Henry Brant, as well as "Deserts" by French-American composer Edgard Varese. Two South American works completed the lineup: "Tangazo" by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla and Choros No. 10, "Rasga o coracao," by Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos.

    In addition, the audience was treated to the always-illuminating commentary of Tilson Thomas, who just may be the most persuasive voice for musical advocacy since Leonard Bernstein.

    By far the evening's most unusual offering was Brant's "Ice Field," which is the 88-year-old California composer's latest work in the genre known as "spatial music." Commissioned by the new-music group Other Minds and based on the planned positioning of groups throughout the concert hall, the idea is that space is of equal value to sound and time in any given performance. At Wednesday's premiere, Tilson Thomas and the orchestra made a compelling case for the concept.

    The performance placed nearly 100 musicians in various locations around the hall. Tilson Thomas conducted the on-stage string band, a complement of oboes and bassoons, in the choir loft, woodwinds in one balcony, a glockenspiel and xylophone in another. Percussionists kept time in boxes at audience level. A brass section led by guest conductor Brad Lubman was on the first balcony. Meanwhile, Brant himself contributed improvised outbursts at the Ruffatti pipe organ to one side of the stage.

    The 20-minute piece approaches moments of chaos but also includes subtle, dreamlike passages. The writing is sonically attractive, and hearing it emanate from all corners of Davies Hall was a kick -- as much for the players, who appeared to be enjoying it immensely, as it was for the audience.

    After intermission, the South American music came across in a pair of brilliant performances. Piazzolla's "Tangazo" may be the Argentinian Tango King's most beautiful work for the concert hall, and the orchestra gave it a lush and languid reading.

    Villa-Lobos' Choros No. 10 employed Vance George's S.F. Symphony Chorus to radiant effect. With 17 vocal soloists producing the work's percussive pulse (based on the folk poetry of Catulo de Paixao Cearense), the orchestra and larger chorus joined in massive swells of sound. Tilson Thomas mused that the work might have come out of a fantasy collaboration between Stravinsky and Esther Williams, and the description was apt: The composer incorporates a kind of show-biz sensibility in the piece, which nonetheless arrives in a maelstrom of sound recalling Stravinsky's "Les Noces."

    The evening's disappointment was "Deserts." Varese, the idol of a long list of musicians including Frank Zappa, was certainly a maverick. And this work, composed between 1950 and 1954, is one of the first pieces of "serious music" to include prerecorded electronica. Tilson Thomas and the orchestra gave it a committed performance, but at a meandering 30 minutes, it still sounded like a parody of a '50s sci-fi soundtrack. How far we've come.

    Georgia Rowe covers classical music for the Times. You can reach her at


  • ©2001 Contra Costa Newspapers, Inc.