Thursday, March 15, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

It's American Mavericks festival season again, and all the same old mavericks are still mavericking away as at all MTT's previous Mavericks festivals several (but apparently not enough) years back. Not only were all the composers repeats from previous years, so were three of the specific pieces. And though there are some premieres in this year's festival, all of this concert's offerings were fairly old: two from the late 1920s, two from the late 1960s. "Same old, same old" is not the feeling one should have on approaching a concert of Mavericks.

Though I had the ticket in my series, I gave some passing thought to just skipping out on this concert, and maybe I should have. First, the current blustery weather wreaked havoc on traffic. Every few miles, the freeway would clog up again because of yet another accident up ahead. Then there were the people in my row who'd used my seat to pile their coats on, and somehow couldn't comprehend that it was my seat. That they didn't seem to speak English (I think they were Russian) may have contributed to the difficulty in communication, though it was the only open seat in the row and I kept pointing at it and waving my ticket. Eventually I fetched the usher, who was as slow on the uptake as the patrons.

And then there was the music.

The first half consisted of Song Books, one of John Cage's later semi-theatrical works that consists more of a set of instructions than a score. Three wooden huts had been erected at the back of the stage, with assorted tables and paraphernalia in front of them. Various musicians stood in the huts and sang, or wandered about the stage playing or hitting things and making noises with their bodies. Yes, I know what you're thinking, and a good loud fart would have enlivened the proceedings considerably. Instead, the music wandered on in a semi-hushed semi-random fashion for half an hour, and even the fact that one of the singers was Jessye Norman (!) did not much help.

According to the program note, Song Books consists of about 90 brief discrete events, but you couldn't tell it from here. Everything blurred together. Apparently it has texts in English, but I could not make out a single intelligible word in the entire piece. Eventually it just stopped, as if someone had turned out a light: in fact someone did, and the stage went dark. Musically, it had the kind of meandering airy openness typical of mature Cage, and if you groove on that, you might have enjoyed it.

Immediately after the curtain call, a small army of stagehands and carpenters swarmed onstage to dismantle everything, but it still took them a 45 minute intermission to cart all the Cagean apparatus away and set the orchestra's chairs up for the more conventional second half. This was actually more interesting to watch than the Cage had been to watch and listen to, because despite its prolixity it looked like it was going somewhere. Where it led to was this triptych:

Phorion by Lukas Foss. Bach's solo violin Prelude in E sent through a potato masher. Sounded a bit like bad radio reception and a bit like the aural equivalent of a funhouse mirror. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with notions like this, it was a five-minute idea in a fifteen-minute bag.

Piano Concerto by Henry Cowell (Jeremy Denk, soloist). A fairly early work, hence edgy. Also noisy: far more hammering than in Cowell's solo piano music, and the orchestra more than responds in kind. The central movement, which sometimes tried to pass for a slow movement, was the best part and had the nearest thing to a resemblance to anything else by Cowell, a composer I usually like.

Sun-treader by Carl Ruggles. MTT led a quite creditable performance of this load of expressionist angst. But since listening to this and several others of his works on record once 30 years ago, as part of my self-imposed musical education, I haven't paid any attention to it, or its composer, in the interim. Checking in again after three decades is not a bad idea, but what I thought of it then is not printable and nothing that happened last night did anything to change my mind. Ruggles' flinty integrity and the infinite care he took in crafting a tiny output tends to be mistaken for profundity.

Perhaps I was not the only patron to spend much of the evening checking my watch. For a while now, the SFS program notes have given the durations of the pieces, and now they're printing them in boldface. Are they trying to tell us something? I left feeling rather bludgeoned. I'm glad I didn't buy the pass for the whole festival. This ain't Cabrillo, folks, and one concert like this a year, or maybe a decade, is enough for me.

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