San Francisco Symphony Refreshes 'American Mavericks' Franchise

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Those who are aware of the enthusiasms of the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas know what is meant by the phrase “American Mavericks.” In fact, there are occasionally whispers to the effect that, over the years, the San Francisco Symphony’s tours have become less adventurous and more dully familiar, so far as the names of composers go. You’ll have Cage, Ives and probably some Harrison when MTT’s crew comes to town. Yawn, some people say.

Give those people this album. It was mostly recorded this past spring as part of the San Franciscans' latest tour. Are you “over” Varèse? That may change, once you hear the meticulously detailed, yet very propulsive (and very loud) account of the composer’s 1927 revision of Amériques. The version here stands up to the triumphant performance I heard at Carnegie Hall (on this same tour) – one that, at the time, made me wonder why I’d been thinking it might possibly be a ho-hum part of the evening.

That was probably because I was looking forward to the most “unusual” part of that particular Carnegie program, which promised to be the spectacle of Joan LaBarbara, Jessye Norman and Meredith Monk singing selections from Cage’s Song Books while Thomas worked a blender. That performance, while fun to watch, didn’t measure up to Varèse’s work, which the San Francisco Symphony seems to fully know. Even in some of the work’s initial, tuning-up gestures (swaying strings and sirens coming to life), this orchestra has a jaunty, swinging feel to it – seeming like an excited, stylish raconteur at the beginning of a yarn that is known to pack a tremendous finish.

While the thumps as prepared by Varèse increase in volume toward the end, I was worried that this live recording would either lose detail or fail to register the sonic pile-up – but it failed on neither count. That’s exactly the kind of recording of Amériques that I want: the sort where you’re worried the disc will shatter or the 1s and 0s of the mp3 codec will be split apart.

And that is just the most “familiar” piece on offer. Despite Thomas’s supposedly tired advocacy on behalf of his beloved “mavericks,” there are no in-print recordings of Cowell to the conductor’s name. That stops now, with this album, which offers both the one-movement Synchrony and Cowell’s Piano Concerto. The former quite surprised me (it’s only been recorded once before, on the old CRI label, then distributed by New World Records). Whereas Amériques bends to the influence of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in its cacophonous climaxes, Cowell’s Synchrony seems to have learned from the Rite’s seductive, lower-volume dances of woodwind dissonance.

Cowell’s Piano Concerto has also not been paid a great deal of attention by record companies; hearing Jeremy Denk as the soloist here, navigating the tone-clusters, may discourage others from taking up the challenge of it (which is too bad, since it’s such fun to hear). Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra is similarly well played by soloist Paul Jacobs, though its “maverick” use of the titular solo instrument feels a little over-determined as a timbral gambit. Still, it’s not as though the classical repertoire doesn’t suffer from similar mannerisms in other periods, and the Harrison piece only suffers at the substantive level in comparison to the other works here.

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