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San Francisco’s American Mavericks

I review the San Francisco Symphony’s remarkable “American Mavericks” festival in the current Times Literary Supplement (UK) as follows:

There is a type of American creative genius whose originality and integrity correlate with refusing to finish their education in Europe. Herman Melville and Walt Whitman are writers of this type. In American music, Charles Ives is the paramount embodiment. The unfinished in Ives is crucial to his affect. Emerson, whom Ives revered, put it this way in his poem “Music”:”’Tis not in the high stars alone . . . /Nor in the redbreast’s mellow tone . . . /But in the mud and scum of things/There alway, alway something sings.” The “Emerson” movement in Ives’s iconic Concord Piano Sonata (1910-15) is both literally and figuratively unfinished. He regarded it as a permanent work in progress. He also intended to make something orchestral out of it.

Over a period of 36 years (1958 to 1994), Henry Brant – a composer variously admired for spatial effects and a sure symphonic hand – transcribed the Concord Sonata for large orchestra. Brant’s Concord Symphony not only orchestrates Ives; it finishes him: the mud and scum are mostly cleaned away. (Ives’s actual voice, which we can hear singing on a 1943 recording, was itself arrestingly frayed.) The result is improbable, provocative, and important: music that demands to be heard. At its first American hearing, at Carnegie Hall in 1996, the Concord Symphony was weakly conducted by the composer. It has rarely been given since. In recent seasons, Michael Tilson Thomas has emerged as its crucial advocate – with his San Francis Symphony (in concert and on CD), with his Florida-based New World Symphony, and most recently as part of the San Francisco Symphony’s indispensable “American Mavericks” Festival, with stops in Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Carnegie Hall.

Brant’s decision not to attempt an Ivesian orchestration makes sense – the Concord Symphony establishes its own sonic identity. His symphonic textures and sonorities do not resemble those of Ives; he paints with acrylics where Ives would use oils. Measure for measure, the score corresponds to its source. But there are countless surprise timbres and voicings. In the Concord Sonata, “Thoreau” evokes bells across the water; Brant here uses no bells. “Thoreau,” as composed by Ives, ends with a tolling bass line in octaves: an Ur-pulse. Brant here thins the bass. Ives’s simplest, most finished movement, “The Alcotts,” generates the most finished orchestration, climaxing with a peroration as stirring as any by Copland; this tremendous six-minute cameo should be sampled by every American orchestra. Ives’s most pianistic Concord movement – “Hawthorne” – is necessarily the movement Brant most makes his own: some pages are unrecognizable as transcription. In Ives, “Emerson” is wild and “Hawthorne” demonic. “The Alcotts” adduces a parlor plainness. “Thoreau” is a seer. None of this registers completely in the Concord Symphony. And yet the ear can still trace the arresting mutations of Ives’s faith tune – a derivative of Beethoven’s Fifth – en route to its final transcendental ascent.

Neither a highly literal appropriation, like Ravel’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (after Mussorgsky), nor an interpretive paraphrase, like Liszt’s “Don Juan” Fantasy (after Mozart), the Concord Symphony is genuinely eccentric – but not in the ways that Ives is eccentric. At its belated 1939 premiere, the Concord Sonata was decisively reviewed by Lawrence Gilman in the New York Herald-Tribune as “exceptionally great music — . . . indeed, the greatest music composed by an American, and the most deeply and essentially American in impulse and implication.” Decades later, Brant wrote of his orchestration: “It seemed to me that the complete sonata . . . might well become the ‘Great American Symphony’ that we had been seeking for years. Why not undertake the task myself? What better way to honor Ives and express my gratitude to him?” The Concord Symphony, whatever its possible disappointments, makes this bold impulse seem wholly understandable and commendable.

The San Francisco Symphony’s festival (which I heard partly at Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium and partly at Carnegie Hall – both acoustically resplendent spaces) was from start to finish musically, viscerally, and intellectually enthralling. At least two of the featured mavericks — Lou Harrison and John Adams – are highly polished craftsmen. If they qualify as mavericks, it’s because their renegade spirit remains intact. Harrison is chiefly known on the West Coast of the United States. He is an unclassifiable hybrid who consummately synthesized East and West long before it became musically fashionable. His 35-minute Piano Concerto (composed for Keith Jarrett in 1985) is a rangy American masterpiece whose lean, uncluttered textures connect with Copland and Roy Harris – and yet is more polyglot, more idiosyncratic, more remote from European models and experience. Tilson Thomas’s festival did not offer the Harrison Piano Concerto. Instead, we heard the kindred Harrison Concerto for Organ and Percussion, music of extraordinary sonic freshness capped by a cluster-laden perpetual motion finale anticipating the Piano Concerto’s rambunctious “Stampede.”

Of Adams, the festival offered a terrific premiere: “Absolute Jest” for string quartet and orchestra. During the second half of the nineteenth century, landscape became the iconic genre for American painters, with Frederic Church in the lead, inspired by a New World vastness of topography. This trope has long found its way into American music. Among contemporary Americans, Adams brings to the act of composition an acute visual sense; he keenly translates widescreen imaginary vistas, often majestic or phantasmagoric. “Absolute Jest” keys on late Beethoven fragments — in particular, a passage from the Vivace of Op. 135 that doubtless appealed to Adams as one of the most raucous string quartet passages ever conceived. In “Absolute Jest” this Beethoven scrap goes viral. Absorbed into an expansive Adams soundscape, it generates a dialectic between New World and Old. The disparate elements combine or collide in a fast and furious 25-minute trajectory that peaks and improbably peaks again, but not without glimpses of serenity. I would like to hear the Berlin Philharmonic play this music.

“American Mavericks” also formidably sampled two “unfinished” composers of great influence whose compositions are more acknowledged than heard: John Cage and Henry Cowell. The loudest “Mavericks” pieces included “Sun-Treader” by Carl Ruggles. The quietest was “Piano and Orchestra” by Morton Feldman. Having known both Ruggles and Feldman, Tilson Thomas at Carnegie Hall offered a little talk juxtaposing the two composers as antipodes. The real purpose of his too subtle speech, however, was to urge a large audience to remain silent. Feldman’s music attunes the ear to the softest sounds. At Carnegie, these included shuffled papers and chairs, coughs muffled and unmuffled, and a passing subway train. The score’s sonic prickles and washes were challenged by sounds less exquisite.

Aaron Copland, not normally considered a “maverick,” was represented by the Orchestral Variations — a 1957 reworking of his 1930 Piano Variations: spare, hard skyscraper music preceding Copland’s populist/Popular Front phase. The festival’s youngest composer, Mason Brown (b. 1977), contributed its most conservative composition: “Mass Transmission,” an affecting choral work with organ, superficially spiced by electronics. The oldest piece was Edgard Varese’s “Ameriques” (1921; revised 1927), which in any company retains plenty of mustard. Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” is here an obvious influence. But to the degree that Stravinsky is Russian, Varese, transplanted to New York, became categorically and brazenly rootless. His title, as he once explained, does not refer to the Western hemisphere, but rather is “symbolic of discoveries — new worlds on earth, in the sky, or in the minds of men.”

The orchestra brought with it a host of eminent soloists all of whom proved suited to the tasks at hand. The virtuosic organist in Harrison’s concerto was Paul Jacobs. The slashing string quartet for “Absolute Jest” was the St. Lawrence. The gripping singers for Cage’s “Song Books” were Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk, and Jessye Norman. The pianists for Cowell’s Piano Concerto and Feldman’s “Piano and Orchestra,” Jeremy Denk and Emanuel Ax, relished unusual expressive possibilities. In Ann Arbor and New York, the festival also included chamber works (which I did not hear) by David Del Tredici, Lukas Foss, Meredith Monk, Harry Partch, Steve Reich, and Morton Subotnick. A cumulative festival statement, both impressive and startling, was that twentieth century American composers discovered a variety of avenues to originality other than modernist complexity born in Europe.

Michael Tilson Thomas’s first season as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony — 1995-96 — featured an American composition on every subscription program and ended with an American festival. Four seasons later, he presented an “American Mavericks” festival that registered nationally as a signature event. This season’s “Mavericks” installment, marking the orchestra’s centennial, testifies to a resilience of mission and implementation: the San Francisco musicians tackled everything with unfailing concentration and polish. At a time when other ensembles are retrenching, the tour party totaled 129 musicians, 23 guest artists, and a stage/technical crew of 21. I cannot imagine that another American orchestra will offer as necessary a series of concerts anytime soon.


  1. This Sunday night and next at 8, Classical KDFC in San Francisco is streaming highlights from the American Macericks Festival. Details at

  2. Having heard the SFSO concerts in both Ann Arbor and San Francisco, I completely agree in your assessment of the Ives/Brant symphony and appreciate your deep consideration of their “collaboration.” I hope it gets performed much more often. What impressed me most about the concerts was the elegance and panache of the performances as MTT and the musicians performed as if they were delivering Rachmaninov or Beethoven — with complete conviction, comfort, and flair. These were not eccentric works of deformed sonic angst, but works of almost romantic art played with passion and understanding. I fear that we heard a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but will hope that I’m wrong…

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