Thursday, March 15, 2012

American Mavericks: MTT, Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk, and Jessye Norman

The 1st half of this American Mavericks concert was a theatrical performance of selections from John Cage's Song Books featuring MTT, Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk, and Jessye Norman. The score is a collection of directions, some of which result in musical performances & some of which are behaviors. There were always several independent things going at once, yet the piece had a feeling of calm. I never worried about what it all might mean.

The high-tech staging began with recorded bird songs & involved amplification, live video, colored lights, & flags waving in an artificial wind. The audience applauded when Jessye Norman was revealed, like a hierophant, in one of the house-like structures on the stage. Besides producing beautifully rich & velvety pitches, she played cards & typed on a manual typewriter. Meredith Monk, sporting 2 long pigtails & wearing a white pinafore, did a goofy dance around the stage & sang a song on "The best form of government is no government at all." Joan La Barbara comfortably sang at the extremes of her voice, wrote a note to someone & delivered a wrapped gift to Immanuel Ax, who was in the audience. MTT used a Cuisinart to make a smoothie, which he drank. 8 members of the SF Symphony also played & contributed additional vignettes. Cellist Amos Yang carefully tore newspapers & dribbled a basketball. Stephen Paulson tried playing his bassoon with a bow.

I saw 6 walk-outs in the 1st tier, where I was sitting. The elderly couple next to me brought a pair of binoculars to watch the shenanigans on stage. The 35-minute performance received warm, supportive applause & cheers for MTT & the 3 vocalists. A gentleman seated behind me must have been puzzled by Ms. Monk's appearance. After the lights went up he asked, "Who was the little girl?"

After a long intermission, a traditional orchestra was back on stage. Lukas Foss's breathless Phorion is a brilliant piece which never strays far from the Preludio of Bach's Partita in E major, fracturing it & whirling it around the orchestra. Concert Master Alexander Barantschik soloed the melody brightly. I especially enjoyed a passage where the percussionist tries to play the theme as fast as possible on the chimes. The performance was a thrill. Its sharp ending sounded like breaking glass.

Jeremy Denk was soloist for the loud & virtuosic Cowell Piano Concerto. He vigorously pounded out tone clusters with his forearms while also giving the impression of precision. The piece is riotous, & has an over-the-top, triumphant ending on a blazing major chord. The program ended with Sun-treader, a loud tone poem by Carl Ruggles, with a big timpani part & a line-up of 7 horns. It has a lush, movie-score atmosphere, & I found it bombastic.

§ American Mavericks: MTT, Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk, and Jessye Norman

San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Joan La Barbara, vocalist
Meredith Monk, vocalist
Jessye Norman, soprano
Jeremy Denk, piano

John Cage: Selections from Song Books
Lukas Foss: Phorion
Henry Cowell: Piano Concerto
Carl Ruggles: Sun-treader

Wed, Mar 14, 2012 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

§ Photo credit: © Kristen Loken

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