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Finally Coming Into Their Own

Music Review * Festival brings avant-garde U.S. composers closer to the mainstream.


SAN FRANCISCO — It is common to assume that absolutely everything in life accelerates, and that the 20th was the American century because we changed the fastest. Certainly the pace of San Francisco has picked up noticeably in the four years since the San Francisco Symphony began its June festivals under Michael Tilson Thomas. The silicon rush has created a boom-town atmosphere and inevitable culture clashes between old bohemian and new entrepreneur mentalities. One venerable North Beach coffeehouse, for instance, adds a dollar surcharge to the cappuccino of anyone using a cell phone while in line.

Still, this is a famously accepting city. And right now, its symphony is putting some of the new San Francisco energy into speeding up one area in which American culture has been untypically laggard--the mainstreaming of the American maverick composer.

Throughout the history of Western music, composers who bewildered musicians and the public by thinking new thoughts about music fairly soon entered into the universal musical consciousness. Last century, Beethoven, Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner were avant-garde, but not for long. And even such audacious Europeans of the early 20th century as Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartok are now part of the universal musical consciousness.

But not so in America. Music written early in the century by Charles Ives, the father of American music, is still considered defiant. Henry Cowell, another early experimenter and the unofficial father of world music, remains downright obscure.

The list keeps on going and the unfurling of it is the intent of American Mavericks, this year's three-week June bash by the San Francisco Symphony. The performances led by Tilson Thomas have been unforgettable, and one conclusion is now inevitable: America produced the most astonishing music of the 20th century.

Astonishing, too, has been the American musical establishment's effectiveness in keeping secrets. But once the word finally gets out--audiences are large and avid--it is going to be very difficult to hush this music up again.

One find is Cowell's Piano Concerto, which was performed Friday night. Given its first performance in 1930, it was not heard again for half a century. It is a concerto of fabulous new possibilities from old technology. The pianist uses palm and forearm as well as fingers to attack the piano. Harmonies are stretched to clusters. Rhythms are intricate and festive; a regard for Bach's counterpoint and Ireland's folk music can be heard under the percussive hubbub. America had just entered into its Great Depression when it was written, and one hears in it a way to proceed--use what is at hand to create something new, and keep the spirits high. Ursula Oppens was the pianist, and she was magnificent.

Tilson Thomas, who speaks with composers after many of the concerts (each is intense, some with both pre-concert and post-concert events), suggested that before movies the orchestra was the only medium in which one could experience the sense of an epic event in real time. America is the epic nation, and that comes through in the music.

A week before the Cowell, Tilson Thomas led a monumental performance of Ives' Fourth Symphony that probed a nation's psyche as deeply as I think any single piece of music could. The orchestra's playing was rich and spiritual but also bursting with infectious commotion in the collage-like second movement. The symphony seemed to inhabit every inch of Davies Symphony Hall, an open space with a good organ and a handy chorus loft above the stage, creating an exhilarating effect that makes the virtual-reality gang a mile or two south of here seem still at a prehistoric level of technology.


The hall became a useful space for Cage's "Dance/4 Orchestras," heard Friday, with the orchestra divided into four ensembles--one on stage, one hidden behind a screen in front of the organ pipes, two out in the lobby. Spare bursts of individual notes or small fragments of them were everywhere, distinct and indistinct. A listener had no choice but to consider his surroundings, since music required one to stop and smell the roses--again another powerful lesson for this town of technological pushiness.

Just the reverse, but so ecstatically so they proved irresistible, was David del Tredici's "Adventures Underground," written some 30 years ago. Here an operatic mad scene, based upon "Alice in Wonderland," is turned on its head, everything exaggerated to the point of obsessive marvel in exhilaratingly crazy music for an exhilaratingly crazy time. Lauren Flanigan was the flabbergasting soprano.

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