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Brant's 'Ice Field' spreads across Davies
Unique arrangement doesn't make up for lack of substance
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Friday, December 14, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


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If all it takes to lay claim to Michael Tilson Thomas' newly overarching term of approbation, "maverick," is a gimmick -- or let's say a stylistic thumbprint -- then composer Henry Brant certainly qualifies. Over a long career, he has explored music's spatial aspects to an extent unmatched by anyone.

His latest work, "Ice Field," which Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony gave its world premiere on Wednesday night in every nook and cranny of Davies Symphony Hall, is in a recognizably Brantian vein. Not for him the drab old setup of orchestra here, conductor in front and audience over there.

Instead, this 20-minute score, commissioned for the Symphony by the new- music organization Other Minds, sets up a sort of musical mobile throughout the hall. Strings and pianos are on the stage, oboes and bassoons in the side terrace section, percussion in the orchestra boxes, a large brass ensemble (led by conductor Brad Lubman) in the first tier, and the 88-year-old composer himself improvising at the organ.

At first, there is surprise and a certain amount of delight as the piece bounces exuberantly around the place in a winningly low-tech version of Sensurround. And it does inspire one to wonder why more composers don't take advantage of music's physical dimensions.

But as with so much of Brant's music, the work's outer shape proves more interesting than the notes underlying it. After the musical thread has been passed around a few times, a listener begins to long for some substance, only to encounter a soupy string chorale and a jazzy brass outburst lifted from "West Side Story." Brant's canoodling around the organ's highest and lowest notes didn't add much.

The rest of the program, devoted to the so-called "Pan-American Mavericks," was only marginally more rewarding. It opened with Edgard Varese's grimly austere "Deserts," an intriguing but daunting melange of pugnacious brass chords and electronic tape interpolations; the piece received as hostile a response (just short of actual booing) as I've ever heard a piece get.

Astor Piazzolla's plangent, vigorous "Tangazo" passed the time pleasantly enough, and Vance George's Symphony Chorus brought the evening to a rousing close with Villa-Lobos' "Choros" No. 10, aptly described by Thomas as a cross between Stravinsky and Esther Williams.



The subscription program repeats at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow in Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $29-$85. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.sfsymphony. org.

E-mail Joshua Kosman at

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