American Mavericks IV: Sundays with Cowell, Partch, Riley, Subotnick, Reich, Monk, Foss, Del Tredici

Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble with members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) perform the world premiere of the SFS commission "Realm Variations" by Meredith Monk at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco on Sunday, March 18, 2012. Photo by Kristen Loken 

Along with the three concerts featuring the full orchestra, San Francisco Symphony's American Mavericks festival featured two programs of chamber music on consecutive Sundays. The first had a fair amount of empty seats, but a very appreciative audience to hear a real grab-bag of 20th Century American music. It began with Jeremy Denk performing five solo pieces by Henry Cowell. These pieces suited Denk's talent and temperament almost perfectly- the usual physical expressiveness of his playing found a perfect foil in Cowell's demanding score, and he rose to the challenges of each, making them look easier to play than they had any right to- or to put it another way, he looked like he was enjoying the himself. Each piece had its own merits and challenges, but the one with the most impact was the gorgeous Exultation, with the aptly titled The Banshee leaving an almost equally strong impression.

Another five pieces by Harry Partch followed, performed by PARTCH on instruments created by the composer to accommodate compositions written for special tunings and a forty-three note scale featured in the works. The instruments are stunningly unique and beautiful, and the members of the ensemble obviously were masters of them. The PARTCH folks were performers as much as musicians, lending the selections a theatrical flair that was initially amusing, especially in San Francisco, which played well to the home crowd, as did Barstow, but the set stretched on a bit and became repetitive.

Terry Riley's G Song for String Quartet received a lush treatment from the Symphony musicians performing it, but its roots as a chaconne made it feel rather ordinary and out of place in context, and in a hall as large as Davies.

The final work of the first concert was Morton Subotnick's Jacob's Room: Monodrama, featuring a chamber orchestra and the composer's wife, singer Joan La Barbara, on vocals. Originally envisioned as a larger work on an operatic scale, the current version features La Barbara and musicians performing a piece not easily described- a Holocaust-themed work incorporating elements of Virginia Woolf's novel. Haunting, especially int he cadenzas where La Barbara let loose with an emotional vulnerability in her voice which was equally thrilling and disturbing. It felt a little long, with the limitation of having only one voice, even with one as chameleon-like as La Barbara's, eventually making itself felt. Still, it's power was undeniable and proved to be a potent ending to the afternoon.

From left to right San Francisco Symphony percussionists Tom Hemphill, James Lee Wyatt III, David Herbert, Jack Van Geem and Raymond Froehlich perform Steve Reich's Music for Pieces of Wood during the American Mavericks Festival, March 18, 2012 at Davies Symphony Hall. Photo by Kristen Loken.

A week later the house appeared full and people were eagerly seeking tickets out front. The concert began with Jack Van Geem, Raymond Froelich, David Herbert, Tom Hemphill, and James Lee Wyatt III performing Steve Reich's Music for Pieces of Wood, the pieces of wood being distinctly tuned claves. Not only was this piece a musical and rhythmic delight, it was amazing to watch the five percussionists perform it.  Requiring a level of physical and mental concentration that looked exhausting to execute, it was exhilarating to watch and hear as each musician entered one by one to create staggeringly complex patterns that shift in meter 58 times during the three separate sections. I loved every moment.

The audience seemed primed to hear the world premiere of Meredith Monk's Realm Variations, including the woman seated next to me who had flown up for the afternoon just to hear it. No one was disappointed. Monk's piece has a unique power and a palatable sensuality coursing through it. Featuring six singers and seven musicians, it was written for the Symphony's Catherine Payne, whose solo piccolo opened the work and continued to have a strong presence within it for the remainder. Monk at 70 years old still possesses an amazing voice, making herself clearly heard among the other talented singers assembled for the work. Sid Chen's bass was a standout among the excellent ensemble. On every level, Realm Variations felt like a complete triumph and the one piece commissioned for the festival that really felt substantial.

Pianist Jeremy Denk and members of the San Francisco Symphony perfrom Lukas Foss' "Echoi" during the American Mavericks Festival at Davies Symphony Hall on March 18, 2012.
Photo by Kristen Loken

After these two splendid performances the afternoon was beginning to feel like it may prove to be the sleeper success of the entire festival, but the momentum didn't hold for the second half. Lukas Foss' Echoi, performed by Denk on piano, Carey Bell on clarinet, Peter Wyrick on cello, and Jack Van Geem manhandling an array of percussion including the lid of a trash can, had moments of interest during its four sections, but in the end proved too dense and hard to follow on a cold listening (I couldn't locate a version to hear beforehand). The four musicians worked hard to make it seem like something more than the sum of its odd parts, but they lost me early on and by the time Van Geem beat the strings of Denk's piano and hit the lid of the trash can in the Echoi IV I was ready to move on.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Kiera Duffy, soprano, and members of the San Francisco Symphony in David Del Tredici's "Syzygy
Photo by Kristen Loken

Doing so took awhile, as it took some time to set the stage for David Del Tredici's Syzygy, which made for a long and dreary ending to the afternoon. Even the splendid vocal talents of soprano Kiera Duffy couldn't salvage it as she alternately yelped, barked and sang two poems by James Joyce, used here as the work's text, while MTT led a small ensemble that never quite made it to anywhere musically interesting.