San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas in New York – Cage’s Song Books, Cowell’s Synchrony, Adams’s Absolute Jest & Varèse’s Amériques

Song Books
Absolute Jest [New York premiere]
Amériques [revised version]

Jessye Norman (soprano); Joan La Barbara & Meredith Monk (vocalists); Jesse Stiles (electronics) & Yuval Sharon (stage director) [Cage]

St Lawrence String Quartet [Geoff Nuttall & Scott St John (violins), Lesley Robertson (viola) & Christopher Costanza (cello)] [Adams]

San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 27 March, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Michael Tilson ThomasThe San Francisco Symphony brought its “American Mavericks” series to New York, opening the first of four concerts with an intricately executed performance of John Cage’s Song Books. Michael Tilson Thomas created the present realization, which included nine of the songs focusing on three aesthetic worlds at once: Cage’s world of random, spontaneous, and unexpected sounds and events; the world and writings of Henry Thoreau that greatly influenced Cage; and the rise of the French avant-garde and Dada as embodied by composer Erik Satie and sculptor-provocateur Marcel Duchamp.

Cage specifies that “an interpretation will involve voices or theatrical action or both, either with or without electronic amplification, depending on what happens.” Here were a large bank of electronics to the right; three open playhouse-shaped ‘cabins’ with white fabric surfaces at the front that could be raised to reveal theatrics or singing, and lowered to act as video screens; pieces of furniture and vertical lighting fixtures; and two pianos, one on the far left and one toward the center. Live images of various activities from a portable camera were projected onto a screen or the back of a cabin.

Three very different voices provided the singing: soprano Jessye Norman, composer-singer-choreographer Meredith Monk, and vocalist Joan La Barbara, who also worked closely with the composer. The amplification of the voices (and instruments) was, for the most part, more subtle and seamless than I have encountered in other performances of Cage’s work, and seemed a natural extension of the acoustics of Carnegie Hall. The transformation of Norman’s voice in particular introduced subtle elements of distortion that did not sound so much electronic as organic. Texts were at times clearly enunciated or intentionally transformed either vocally or electronically. MTT and nine members of SFSO carried out theatrical aspects of the songs, with contact microphones amplifying the sounds of various actions and activities, adding a percussive feel and also lent the sustained sounds a character not unlike that of Brian Eno’s mid-1980s ‘ambient’ music.

The stage action often proved more interesting than the music, as Cage surely intended. There were amusing moments, such as the random selection of a seat in the audience whose occupant received a gift from La Barbara. The presentation had the feeling of a late-1960s ‘happening’, yet using advances in technology. During the forty-minute intermission, the breaking-down of the set and setup of the orchestral seating was a performance in itself.

The compelling opening passage of Henry Cowell’s Synchrony, written for a hoped-for collaboration with choreographer Martha Graham that never materialized, features solo trumpets playing melodic material reminiscent in turns of Scriabin, Roy Harris, and William Schuman. The melodies serve as the basis for the remainder of the piece, which is thickly scored – far too much so in many passages – though the strophic structure of the work has a sprinkling of striking sections that utilize bitonality, tone clusters, and innovative orchestration.

St. Lawrence String Quartet. Photograph: Anthony ParmeleeJohn Adams’s Absolute Jest is a grand-scale scherzo for string quartet and symphony orchestra that derives most of its material from short snippets of Beethoven’s Quartets Opus 131 and 135, along with extended and wittily mutated passages from the scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and a passage from his ‘Waldstein’ Sonata. The work has all of the ostinato-driven momentum one expects from Adams’s music, but Absolute Jest presents the composer’s most astonishing demonstration of his mastery of variation, transformation, and orchestration. The St Lawrence String Quartet played with technical panache, vigor, and nod-and-wink humor, and save for one dodgy bit of intonation in the first violins, the orchestra showed off its own virtuoso punch.

MTT’s almost counterintuitive interpretation of Edgard Varèse’s Amériques eschewed its hard-driven percussive and rhythmic character, focusing instead on sonorities that are lush and beautiful while still retaining plenty of force, exuberance, and assertiveness. The percussion section brought unexpected color to the incisive rhythms of the intricately written material. I was hoping for more-dynamic extremes, and the final section didn’t have quite enough explosive force, but MTT and his orchestra dazzled with quite a maverick interpretation of one of last century’s most original creations.

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