The San Francisco Symphony is in the midst of their 100th anniversary season which has been filled with exciting programing and great reminders of its past at every turn. The orchestra has a history of coveted relationships with local 20th-century composers and some of these ties are featured prominently in their current American Mavericks series, which kicked off this week in a series of programs that the group will take on tour in Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Carnegie Hall under music director Michael Tilson Thomas. It’s music most American symphonies don’t play every day, which is a plus even if the opening program, which I heard on Saturday night felt more like a flashback than looking into the future.
This is not the first time Tilson Thomas has brought American Mavericks to the stage in San Francisco. The first was in 2000 and this reprisal run contains almost exclusively works the orchestra has performed under him before with a few new commissions from well-established figurds like John Adams and Meredith Monk. And as Tilson Thomas acknowledged from the stage prior to the start of the evening, the term “maverick” has meant different things at different times. (Or as the 2008 election taught us, it may have no meaning whatsoever.) And on opening night the word's meaning was definitely a historical one with works from composers who were outliers in the world of art music in their own times if not quite so much now.
Two of the works on the program were further outliers in that they were orchestral transcriptions or adaptations of better known solo piano works. The night started with Copland’s Orchestral Variations, a 1957 arrangement of his earlier Piano Variations now for a small ensemble. Tilson Thomas mentioned his own close relationship with the composer and noted that in his later years, Copland had given him his blessing on developing a further large-scale orchestral expansion of the work that Tilson Thomas described as “just something we do.” The work’s brief 10 or so minutes do still maintain the sort of angular and percussive sound Copland had cultivated prior to completing the later music he would be most remembered for. Still, the piece felt like a curiosity or an abstraction of a much more substantial work in a modern day equivalent of those opera transcriptions for piano and organ that were so popular during the 19th century. This same unsettling feeling also plagued Ives' A Concord Symphony which closed the evening. Ives’ landmark A Concord Sonata, written nearly a century ago, is undoubtedly a piece that may be the well-spring of all 20th-century American art music. In the hands of a performer like Aimard it can still stun an audience into silence. The love of the piece was so strong for composer Henry Brant, that he spent decades working on an orchestra transcription of the work, which was completed in 1994. In this format it still fascinates with its references to popular culture of the late 19th century fused to the most unexpected music that deconstructs this material as quickly as it picks it up. But there is still something lost here, the broader orchestral palette of sounds abandoning a kind of unity in the original piano sonata.
In between these two orchestral oddities, was Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra. Harrison was another local composer that Tilson Thomas noted had a long-standing relationship with this orchestra. (There's been a lot of reflection on Harrison here lately in the wake of the recent opening of Eva Soltes's excellent documentary on the composer Lou Harrison: A World of Music that is still playing in town.) The concerto incorporates Harrison’s interest in Asian music and instrumentation in an odd combination of percussion players alongside the organ, played here by Paul Jacobs, which sometimes serves as a point of contrast. It’s not unpleasant, but it could also sound like Messiaen played by your high school marching band. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. And while this program seemed appropriately historical for the occasion, none of it seemed particularly compelling in the here and now. These were memories of Mavericks past, not those still pointing the way to the future.