The somewhat subdued response in the house last Thursday night for the opening night concert of the San Francisco Symphony's American Mavericks festival gave way on Saturday night to a rambunctiousness onstage that made itself felt in the audience.

John Cage's Song Books performed by Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk, Jessye Norman, Michael Tilson Thomas and members of the San Francisco Symphony during the American Mavericks Festival at Davies Symphony Hall. Photo credit: Kristen Loken  

How could it have been otherwise, with the Symphony starting the night off with a delightful staging of John Cage's bizarre performance piece Song Books? Cage's piece contains 90 different "songs," each a solo in "one of four categories: 1) song [an actual one or something approximating what we know as one]; 2) song using electronics; 3) theater; 4) theater using electronics." The categories alone are hint enough that what's about to be performed was going to be unusual and it certainly was. The SFS brought some serious vocal talent to make it work: Meredith Monk, Joan La Barbara, and Jessye Norman. Also appearing in the piece was Michael Tilson Thomas and assorted members of the orchestra. What did they all do? Well, Norman used an antique typewriter to compose a note in French. Monk sang a quote by Thoreau as if it were a taunt and waddled around the stage like a duck. La Barbara did a take on her own "Circular Song." Cellist Amos Yang and Principal Bassoon Stephen Paulson played cards. MTT played with string and then noisily chopped up some cucumbers, threw them into a blender, turned it on and drank the results. Someone barfed- repeatedly and a pianist took a nap at the keys. There were 80 other things going on, but I can't tell you what all of them were, as most of it was unfurling simultaneously across the stage and it was almost too much to take in. There was "real" music and "singing" as well, some of it quite striking coming from all three guests and the assorted players, but in the end it hardly felt like that was the point and yet it was the entire point- what exactly does constitute a song? Song Cycles, at least as performed here, is one of those things you either go along with and love, or could just as easily hate. The audience seemed split into thirds- the lovers, the haters, and the baffled. I loved it.

After the intermission came three works which sounded almost traditional compared to the first half. Lukas Foss' Phorion was played in its non-aleatoric version, which I have to admit was a bit disappointing since the Festival is about breaking boundaries- why not go with the version which is more challenging? Thomas gave us the reason- when the piece was premiered in its aleatoric version by Bernstein in 1967, the ten minute work required ten hours of practice. Fair enough. A composed version of sampling using the prelude of Bach's Partita in E, Phorion (the word is Greek for "stolen goods") is an inventive novelty with enough charm and wit to seem more substantial than it is- but that's really the key to sampling- start with something good and use it well, and most folks will find it entertaining.

Speaking of entertaining, pianist Jeremy Denk was the soloist for Henry Cowell's Piano Concerto. Requiring a level of almost absurd dexterity to perform, including playing two octaves with a forearm and hitting tone clusters with a fist, once the novelty of how it's played wears off, the result is a pretty substantial piece of music that doesn't come across as a gimmick, but rather three movements of inventive, attractive melodies and rhythms, though I could swear I heard the "Mexican Hat Dance" music somewhere in the third movement. Denk handled the piece with aplomb, coming out in Johnny Cash black and performing with a James Cagney-like swagger.

Carl Ruggles' Sun-Treader has two things going for it- an absolutely fantastic opening and an equally wonderful finish, and it may be the loudest thing you've ever hear performed by an orchestra. However, in between those massive wall-of sound bookends, the piece lost me as it meandered over assorted sunspots, but man, that black-hole of a finish was some incredible noise.