American Mavericks 2012

American Mavericks Festival

The San Francisco Symphony is celebrating its Centennial this season with gusto — they’ve invited six major American orchestras to perform in their home at Davies Symphony Hall, created three national symposia on the state of American orchestras, issued new recordings and produced new television, web, and radio broadcasts, and produced the second American Mavericks festival, the brainchild of the Symphony’s energetic music director, Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). The festival ended Sunday in San Francisco and now is traveling to Chicago, Ann Arbor and New York.

I was happy to be there last week-end for at least some of the festivities. My expectations were high. Full disclosure: I was executive producer of a 13-hour radio and web series inspired by the first American Mavericks festival in 2000. The series, hosted by Suzanne Vega, with MTT, was heard on public radio stations nationwide. (Documentation of that series is here.) It took producer Tom Voegeli and the team a couple of years to gather the festival’s concert audio, interview participants, collect contextual information, build the website, and get the series into circulation. None of us went to Mavericks the First, but we were excited to work with the music and ideas it represented.

This year’s festival reminds us not only of the energy and vitality of American music but also of how much has changed in 12 years. The landmark 2000 festival was created before we had social media, live streaming, and so many other digital discovery platforms. In 2012, the Symphony and artists are blogging, streaming, video-chatting, and using social media to talk about the work in real time (although the concerts themselves are not being live-broadcast or webcast). The Symphony’s website is chock full of links to biographical and contextual information, and recordings of the highlighted composers. To celebrate the festival’s New York visit next week, WQXR’s Q2 channel is already offering us a live web stream of “mavericks’ music” on demand. And Carnegie Hall, partner in the project, has been releasing artists’ videos and information on its Facebook page for a couple of weeks now. Beyond its digital reach the festival is also traveling – physically — this time (and to think of touring with the huge band and battery called for in Edgar Varese’s Ameriques!  it is like a production manager’s Olympics).

Another big difference in the 2012 Festival — four commissions and world premieres (there were none in 2000). New works from John Adams, Mason Bates, and Meredith Monk were festival highlights last week-end, with all three composers in residence, performing and engaging with audiences.  If you agree (and I do) with Ed Sanders, Google Creative Lab’s Group Marketing Manager, who said at last Saturday’s Orchestra Forum that classical music should connect with “maker culture” to engage broader audiences, then the Symphony’s efforts to include new works in the 2012 Mavericks Festival are an especially important addition. We can argue about what a maverick composer is, or what maverick means, period, in a musical context. But it’s the right impulse to show audiences that “makers and do-ers” are alive and kicking in concert music.

But Sanders’ comment also stayed with me as I’ve thought about what more the Symphony could do to connect more people – from festival newcomers to long-time subscribers – to the universe of American music that lies outside the mainstream of symphony concerts, which is to say, a lot of American music. How could a festival connect us with the pioneering spirit of “American-ness” that distinguishes so much music, but also so much visual art, poetry, film, and dance? And how can a festival about the new, be new itself? How can it inspire “maker culture” in its audiences?

And here is where the festival let me down a bit. While the content of the concerts was an ear-opening experience, the production values were as traditional as any other orchestra concert. The audience experience from start to finish was the same we’ve become accustomed to, only with longer set changes for these complicated works.  The same length, format, and pacing; the same program books and stage set up. The same distance between performer to audience.  The same formality.

The gap? The content of the American Mavericks festival puts the Symphony in an ideal position to not only present the work, but also to present it in new ways, and I don’t mean digitally, I mean physically. They could open our minds by disrupting our expectations and surprising us with new sounds and new experiences. How? By immersing us in the other art forms that could help us understand the context for a maverick sensibility, or by giving us the tools and opportunity to make art ourselves, or by breaking from standard-delivery-two-hours-with-intermission concerts to create unexplored and unexpected encounters with works of art. How about the artists talking from the stage? How about a poetry reading during the long set changes? Or multiple intermissions with activities that use Davies’ grand lobby spaces? How about an all-day instrument-building festival culminating in a concert, or other projects that could unleash the DIY energy that the Bay Area personifies? The festival could move out beyond the downtown concert hall and into other venues, or its themes could be amplified by local museums, at movie theaters, in local restaurants, at universities, or in the street. In marathons, pop-up concerts, symposia, or other formats the festival could more boldly embody the voices that are so clearly present in the music itself. I now long for a “Mavericks the Third” that would bring the whole city of San Francisco into the mix in ways that celebrate the region’s own role as maverick, a place that represents discovery, free-spiritedness, and innovation. And please, let’s not wait 12 years for this to happen!

That said, the musicmaking was terrific. With me as my plane took off for home — the haunting melodies of Meredith Monk’s Realm Variations, performed by the Symphony’s singular piccolo player, Catherine Payne, and an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists, the counterpoint in John Adams’ new Absolute Jest for the St. Lawrence Quartet and the S.F. Symphony, and the cacophony of Varese’s Ameriques. If you live in Ann Arbor or New York, plan to attend.


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  1. Susan Key says

    I completely agree with your sense that there is more to be done in the area of audience experience — especially for a series like American Mavericks. However, I am disappointed that you did not mention (or perhaps were not aware of) the innovative pre-concert programs the San Francisco Symphony developed for two of the orchestral concerts: an original theater piece for actor and pianist that explored the world of Ives and the Concord sonata; and an interactive “experience” presented by faculty from the Walden School that included audience singing tone clusters and performing a Cage-style “happening.” The audience response was tremendous, with many commenting that these experiences gave them a path into music they otherwise would have found baffling or abstruse.

    While these programs did not meet your call to break out of the “standard-delivery-two-hours-with-intermission concerts,” they did break out of the “standard-delivery-lecture-with-recorded-musical-examples” pre-concert format, and did show that audiences are extremely responsive to innovations that offer them a more imaginative engagement with the music.

    • says

      Thanks Susan. I did hear about these events and was sorry to miss them. One contrast in my mind though — walking through the mayhem around the Civic Center on St Patrick’s Day from BART to Davies, and then enter the serene hall for concerts about artistic mavericks. It was ironic to say the least! Congratulations on a great series of concerts. It sounds like things went really well at Carnegie.

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