Talk about a quick turn around. After a rather stodgy and dreary opening to the San Francisco Symphony’s latest iteration of the American Mavericks Festival on Thursday and Friday, the ensemble returned Saturday with a superb second program, likely one of the best you’ll see anywhere this year. The material was no different, 20th-century masterpieces from American composers including John Cage, Lukas Foss, Henry Cowell, and Carl Ruggles. What was new was a spirited attitude that injected some life and a whole lot of fun into what the cutting edge was. The show’s highlight was the first half of the evening dedicated to John Cage’s Song Books from 1970. The piece is a daunting collection of 90 short works that are equal part theater and music. Most of these consist of instructions to perform certain acts that may or may not make sound, and Cage was often indeterminate about both text and musical content, allowing for extensive borrowing from just about any source a performer might choose. One song instructs the performer to select a seat in the auditorium using random lines on a transparency and a seat map. Once the seat is selected, the performer leaves the stage to deliver a gift and then return. The singers are miked and perform both standard vocal lines in some works and combinations of guttural or chirping sounds at others. There are recitations of various texts and and every day noises like card shuffling and chopping vegetables as well.
One smart move on this evening was that the Symphony hired three legendary vocalists, Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk, and Jessye Norman who accompany the handful of orchestral players who would wander on and off the stage. The second smart thing they did was to hire young stage director, Yuval Sharon, to construct a large scale staging for the performance. Sharon brilliantly organizes the stage around three screen-covered huts at the rear of the space and then allows the songs to unfold often simultaneously in an organized chaos Cage would have approved of. (The photo above is from the San Francisco Symphony's own site taken at the final dress rehearsal performance.) At the beginning of the performance from the dark, one heard cooing and then La Barbara’s face appears on the left screen projected from a live video camera somewhere yet to be revealed. Slowly the curtain on the second hut raises to reveal a bedecked Jessye Norman in a flowing gown singing the music of Satie. Cage provided songs that used electronic processing of Satie’s music, and, though restrained, it provided a most royal entrance for La Norman. Soon the stage is filled with players dressed either casually or in tails. Some sit at one of three table engaged in any number of tasks including reading and tearing paper or moving around other objects. Two pianos rest at either side of the stage and and are periodically played and then abandoned. There are neon lights that flicker on and off and eventually Monk strolls onto stage chirping and clicking as she slowly strolls or waddles around the space. Monk will later try on a dress and has one of the more humorous parts of the evening reciting lines about the kind of government "we need" that directly references the work of Thoreau.
The players come and go as Cage’s songs start and stop, all playing out simultaneously one against the other. Michael Tilson Thomas joins the fray at one point picking at the strings of a piano and throwing paper. The vocalists move about and amid the organized chaos creating some beautiful images. Some are projected on the screens of the huts such as barren trees or maps of Concord, MA. Other images are ironic living ones like seeing Jessye Norman peck away on an amplified typewriter. (The performance generated video projections reveal that the text she composes is in French.) If you have ever loved Ms. Norman in performance, this unexpected, unusual turn to the music of John Cage will make you do so all over again. All of this bustling hour-long activity from the basketball dribbling to the electronic blips and whirs drove right to the heart of Cage’s project, recognizing the music in everyday sound around us all. Sharon’s staging captures that wonder on the largest possible scale by creatively playing out these individual songs one atop the other in a continuous cascade. Not everyone in the audience could relate to this sophistication and there were some boos and a handful of walk outs, but that’s as it should be. This music should strike some nerves, and it certainly did on Saturday.
This magnificent theatrical opening was a tough act to follow. But when the orchestra returned with Tilson Thomas, the events of the first half of the evening had lit a light under them and they dug into the following discordant early 20th-century works with real zest. Lukas Foss’ Phorion, an orchestral deconstruction of a Bach solo violin partita sparkled. This nearly deranged ten minutes was followed by Henry Cowell’s 1928 Piano Concerto with its percussive, nearly hammering playing. Soloist Jeremy Denk proved as adventurous as the soloists in the first half of the evening, bracing his forearms and elbows as they repeatedly crashed against the keyboard for this rhythmic rocker of a piano concerto. The evening ended with Carl Ruggles Sun-treader from 1931 with its cacophony of crashing brass and discordant, sometimes wailing strings. It was a great show that tapped directly into that maverick spirit the series is purportedly all about. All of this material will be repeated here in San Francisco on Wednesday and lucky audiences in both Ann Arbor and New York in the coming month.