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Musical Country

Blake Little

Time Waits for No Quartet: For the American Festival, the Kronos Quartet paid tribute to American composer Henry Cowell.

San Francisco's American Festival proved that symphony audiences will turn out for modern classical

By Phil Collins

ON JUNE 14, the San Francisco Symphony's An American Festival began its first of three weekends at Davies Hall with all the ceremony and hoopla of a Super Bowl victory bash. Herb Caen may have held the key to the city on Friday, but by Sunday, it was Lou Harrison Day, according to Mayor Willie Brown.

Harrison, the 79-year-old, world-renowned Aptos composer, hosted the first weekend's concerts and was also featured as composer. Despite Harrison's manifold contributions to the world of music, and within the Bay Area in particular, his music had not been featured on the San Francisco Symphony's subscription series until this year. Music director Michael Tilson Thomas believed Harrison's time was long overdue.

Tilson Thomas introduced a number of "firsts" at the festival; most all of them during the first weekend. Although subsequent programs have boasted some bright spots and excellent performances, they've also been increasingly run-of-the-mill. Tomorrow's (June 28) program, American Voices, could pass as a cutting-edge pops concert.

For good or ill, what will probably be most remembered about An American Festival is the Grateful Dead's jamming with Tilson Thomas on MIDI-piano. Considering that the concerts featuring members of the Dead (Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Vince Welnick) were sold out weeks in advance, it's likely that we've not seen the last of Deadheads at Davies. Which isn't bad news. American concert music has been love-starved throughout this century, and it was heartening to see how enthusiastically these newcomers took to the music of Cowell, Harrison and others. The symphony audience may not be an aging, dying breed after all.

As festivals go, Tilson Thomas' lineup of contemporary talents was commendable. It included composers-in-residence like Harrison, Steve Reich, John Adams and Meredith Monk, as well as acclaimed performers Garrick Ohlsson, Frederica von Stade and the Kronos Quartet. But more importantly, Tilson Thomas' inclusive approach to programming made An American Festival particularly relevant, during the first two programs, at least.

In the programs titled Soundscape USA and An Afternoon With America's Musical Visionaries, Tilson Thomas staked out a vast span of territory, dissolving stylistic boundaries over a period of three centuries to elicit the common ground of this country's myriad musical traditions. The repertoire featured an exhaustive variety of means and styles that exhibited what the conductor called America's maverick tradition.

The juxtapositions in Soundscape USA featured some unlikely pairings. The juxtaposition of John Adams' brief curtain-raiser, Lollapalooza, with Ives' Holidays Symphony seemed almost cruelly ironic--pop-tinged ear candy by America's most celebrated living composer followed by a deeply personal, long-neglected symphony by America's most-venerated experimentalist.

The Holidays Symphony (1897­1933) was a moving revelation for those of us used to hearing the movements piecemeal, as is often the case. The orchestra offered a warm reading that was not without punch when the going got rough. Tilson Thomas drew out the music's multilayered profiles with discerning tempo relationships and supple balancing. The orchestra responded brilliantly, accommodating the score's collages of traditional and original melodies with tight blends and rhythmic precision.

Colonial period hymns and madrigals by William Billings, Timothy Swan and Justin Morgan provided some palette-cleansing before the simultaneous performance of two John Cage pieces: Renga and Apartment House 1776. The chorus for the hymns offered attractive accounts--except for some sour tenor exposures--that revealed the music's decidedly American qualities. The composers' use of modes, asymmetrical phrasing and divergent counterpoints were not exactly in vogue in Europe at that time.

THE CAGE experiment faired better in concept than in execution. The composer's prescription in Apartment House 1776 for four vocal soloists representative of different religious sects, accompanied by instrumental adaptations of 18th-century song, is a fascinating premise. However, despite the fine singing of Pamela Warrick-Smith (African); Benjamin Maissner (Sephardic); Floyd Red Crow Westerman (Native American); and Pamela Sebastian (Protestant), the realization was pure mish-mosh, diluted by the unvarying, amplified improvisations of the Renga participants (the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra and members of the Grateful Dead).

An Afternoon With America's Musical Visionaries was a four-hour epic of extraordinary design. With 11 works, two intermissions, a jam session between Tilson Thomas and the Dead alumni titled Space for Henry Cowell and host Harrison's charming anecdotes, this was no mere concert. Dope smoke lingered in the restrooms and glassy-eyed fans wandered the aisles during performances--still no sign of Jerry.

Percussion music was highlighted throughout, but to no greater effect than in Edgard Varèse's masterpiece, Ionisation, for 13 percussionists. The performance was terrific, and Tilson Thomas chose to repeat it, eliciting even greater applause the second time around. Cowell's jewel-like continuum of tappings in the percussion octet Ostinato pianissimo was pure delight, and Steve Reich's Clapping Music--performed by the composer and Raymond Froelich-- grooved like pigmy music.

More austere still was Monk's set of songs, some a cappella and others accompanied by pianist Nurit Tilles. Monk's vocalizing of wordless sounds enchantingly integrated idea and means.

The relatively new medium of violin, piano and percussion was handsomely represented by the Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio in two works: Antheil's Second Sonata for Violin with Accompaniment of Piano and Drums, and Henry Cowell's Set of Five. The first was deliciously served, if lacking in substance, but the Cowell beamed with life.

Cowell's selective use of percussion (toms, tuned rice bowls, gongs and more) added delectable shadings to the violin/piano format, and the trio's seasoned rendering illuminated the score's virtues.

The Kronos Quartet's tribute to Cowell was the densely contrapuntal Quartet Euphometric. It made a rollicking short, but forgettable, ride compared to the expansive melodicism of Terry Riley's The Gift. Deadheads in the audience clearly enjoyed the hitchhiker graffiti of Harry Partch's Barstow Songs, arranged for string quartet by composer Ben Johnston, who also read the texts.

The afternoon's most explosive moments came with Harrison's Concerto for Organ and Percussion, a clamorous essay for 10 percussionists and organ, impressively played by soloist John Walker.

By comparison, last Thursday's orchestra concert, Sounds of the City, was a throwaway. Tilson Thomas' double stint as pianist and conductor in Gershwin's Second Rhapsody was a captivating feat, and the premiere of Cowell's 1926 ballet score, Atlantis, for three vocalists and orchestra was at least peculiar. But the two featured works by living composers--Reich's City Life and Michael Daugherty's Concrete Jungle--added up to an interminable second half.

The orchestral music of Aaron Copland made for a gratifying program Saturday evening. Copland's music, like Stravinsky's, works appealingly in concentrated doses, and Tilson Thomas' programming accentuated the composer's chameleon adaptability to different styles. Whether amid the thorny dissonances of the Short Symphony, Orchestral Variations and Piano Concerto, or the more popular-flavored Appalachian Spring and Lincoln Portrait (narrated by Caen), Copland's signature traits resounded throughout.

Interestingly, but none too surprisingly, the capacity crowd that attended the Copland program was of an entirely different makeup than the audiences who turned out for the previous weekend of experimentalism. Through Tilson Thomas' imaginative programming and shrewd marketing, An American Festival has reached segments of the public that would not normally attend symphony concerts. That in itself is progress and, with luck, a lesson that will be absorbed by symphony programmers throughout the region.

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From the June 27-July 3, 1996 issue of Metro

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