American Mavericks III: It Might Get Loud- Varèse, Feldman, Adams, Bates

I've long admired Thomas May's program notes and I was halfway through reading about Mason Bates' Mass Transmission, commissioned by San Francisco Symphony for the American Mavericks festival, when I thought to myself May must have written this, so I turned to the end and lo and behold, I was right. He also wrote the notes for the other commission premiering this night, John Adams' Absolute Jest. May's notes are so well-written and intriguing that my anticipation for hearing these two pieces rose substantially- and I was already thinking this would likely be the best concert of the five offered. He almost got me thinking of the other pieces on the program, Morton Feldman's Piano and Orchestra and Edgard Varèse's Ameriques, for which he didn't write the notes, as afterthoughts.

I only mention this because the reality of the concert itself proved to be the opposite of what of I anticipated. After hearing Bates' wonderful Alternative Energy performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when they rolled into town as part of the American Orchestra series last month, I was primed for more. Mass Transmission is nowhere near that level. Resting somewhere between Deep Forest and The Art of Noise, the three part work for organ (Paul Jacobs), chorus (conducted by Donato Cabrera) and electronica (Bates), seems like an extended fragment culled from something larger, but there's little in it that led me to want to hear more.

Adams' Absolute Jest should really be credited to another composer- Beethoven, because on hearing it for the first time the only memorable parts are those lifted by the former more or less straight from latter's late quartets and scherzo of the Ninth Symphony. Great choices to borrow (steal?) from, to be sure, but if the listener knows these works even casually, Absolute Jest comes across as little more than a Beethoven mixtape performed by an orchestra- "Ah, there's Op.131! That's from 127! Yes, there's the Scherzo again..." and so forth for twenty minutes. This didn't stop the orchestra from giving it a strong, vigorous performance, and there was something quite thrilling indeed in hearing an entire string section play riffs from the quartets, with the added bonus of having the powerhouse St. Lawrence String Quartet rocking the center of it all with glee, but I was somewhat dumbfounded by the standing ovation the work received and felt like we had all just been had- as if the joke were on the audience for thinking there was something substantial in it all.

I will say, however, The St. Lawrence String Quartet really impressed me. This was the first time I've seen them and I would go out of my way to do so again- even if that means heading all the way down the road to Stanford.

Just before launching into the Feldman, MTT decided to say a bit about the piece, which he obviously didn't plan on because he didn't have a microphone at hand. He was hard to hear from where I sat toward the rear of the orchestra, but I think he was alluding to the similarity between the composer's work and those of the painters he admired- especially Rothko. Sadly, MTT didn't do his impersonation of Morty, which is pretty damn funny.

I vividly remember going to SFMOMA on a rainy afternoon one day years ago, looking at Rothkos, and thinking what the fuck?- I could paint that. Thankfully I was with a guy who was an art history major and I asked him to explain the paintings to me. It only took a few minutes of his comments for me to realize I could never paint anything like that. Feldman's Piano and Orchestra is similar in that on its surface it appears quite simple, and its slow, meditative pace, quietly played, isn't easily penetrated without concentration. This isn't made any easier by the part for the soloist, here performed by Emmanuel Ax, who seems to do little more than chime in somewhat regularly with two dissonant chords. But as the piece progresses, and once I started understanding what I was hearing (it did take some time and some deliberation) I was amazed by its structure and the power underneath its placid surface. By the time it concluded, I was deeply moved and impressed by the performance and felt it truly defined the spirit of the festival.

But MTT wasn't finished, and after a long break to organize the stage to accommodate 125 musicians, including fifteen(!) percussionists, he led the orchestra in a stunning, pulverizing performance of Varèse's Ameriques. The antithesis of Feldman's quiet complexity, this was a barrage of sound I could physically feel coming from the stage. Mark Inouye led the brass section through a storm of outbursts and the percussionists created more noise than I would have thought possible, and in the most wonderful way. Taken together, the pieces on the second half of the program proved to be the highlight of the festival (though there's one more program left of chamber-sized pieces)- and truly defined what makes a "maverick."