Though the audience felt a bit subdued at the opening concert for the San Francisco Symphony's American Mavericks festival, there was nothing of the sort coming from the stage. Surprisingly, Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas began the performance without any introductory comments- he seemed content to let the music do the talking on this night and indeed it did. Leading off with Copland's Orchestral Variations, MTT and the orchestra showcased the more unfamiliar side of the composer- dark, brooding and aggressive music that sounds like the blueprint for film noir soundtracks with no sign to be found this is the same guy who wrote Rodeo or Appalachian Spring. The orchestra's brawny approach matched it perfectly.
Lou Harrison's Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra followed, featuring soloist Paul Jacobs and seven percussionists. Beginning with an Allegro section reminiscent of a drumline, the work proceeds through a variety of different musical terrains - an Adante follows for just the organist and then a dream-like Largo lulls the listener to a quieter place -indeed, it put the guy next to me to sleep. He awoke with a snort when the Canons and Choruses section began, which was a gorgeous, deliberate meditation full of hypnotic counterpoints. The final Allegro section veers into something that sounds almost delightfully like surf music, and Jacobs and the percussionists tore through it with a Ventures-like glee. At the end, MTT held the score aloft and kissed it.
During the intermission I took the opportunity to introduce myself to Jeremy Denk, who was seated next to cellist Steven Isserlis during the performance. Denk is performing in three of the scheduled Mavericks concerts and Isserlis is in town to perform Schumann's Cello Concerto with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. I was hanging fire at the rail of the rear boxes as Denk came in from the lobby, giving me the chance to buttonhole him in person. He proved to be kind and gracious, though for a moment he seemed apprehensive, as if he wondered exactly what I might be up to once it all clicked into place. The popular, well-regarded pianist and I have a bit of a thorny history, but I'll cheerfully admit to admiring the man's abilities with a keyboard whether it be attached to a piano or a computer. His recent recording of Ives is marvelous and if you haven't already read it, check out his brilliant piece in the Feb. 6 issue of the New Yorker on the trials of recording the album's Concord Sonata.
An orchestrated version of the same made up the second half of the concert. The piece was obsessed over for years not only by its composer, but also by Henry Brant, who worked on re-orchestrating it for more than forty years. Between the two of them, I doubt there's a single work in the entire musical canon that has had so much time has been spent on its creation and revision. It proved to be an enormous, frequently thrilling beast, with the orchestra's string section sounding (and I know I've said this before, but it keeps happening) better than ever. The four sections eschew sonata form and instead evoke the spirit of four mid-nineteenth century literary personages of Concord, Mass- Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts and Thoreau. Emerson is the thorniest, Hawthorne the most interesting and diverse. The Alcotts mirror their history of transcendentalism and Thoreau is, well, Thoreau. The gorgeous hymnal section of the Hawthorne section proved to be the highlight for me before it (d)evolves into a cacophonous mash-up of who knows how many borrowed tunes- a feature of each of the work's movements, but done with special flair here. The time Brant expended on Ives' work proved to be well-spent- in his hands the Concord is an orchestral piece with a gravitas wholly different than its inspiration.
There's still time to buy a $100 pass for all remaining festival performances. Call 415 864 6000, or go the Davies box office. Also, Eva Soltes' great documentary on Lou Harrison continues at the Roxie this weekend and is well worth seeing.