"A Parade of the Maverick Modernists, Joined by the Dead"
by Alex Ross
The New York Times, June 19, 1996
Michael Tilson Thomas long dwelled in the shadow of Leonard Bernstein. Perhaps he imitated his mentor too much, right down to the debonair baritone. Now, in San Francisco, as the mastermind of a festival called Soundscape USA, he is creating something entirely in his image. Nothing quite like it has ever been seen in a concert hall: a raucous survey of the experimental tradition in American music, a sellout audience swamped by fans of the Grateful Dead.
Finishing his first year as music director, Mr. Tilson Thomas has put a bold imprint on the San Francisco Symphony. Already excellent under Herbert Blomstedt, the orchestra has added tonal heft and stylistic versatility. The conductor also has interesting taste. American music, for him, means neither formulaic nostalgia nor pre-approved modernism. He leans toward the unsystematic avant-garde, what he calls the "maverick tradition." His flaw is a tendency toward meandering, uneven programs.
This American festival, which runs through June 29, began with an orchestral program on Friday and Saturday in Davies Hall. Ives's "Holidays" Symphony set the tone, with a mixture of wistful impressionism and noisy collage. In Saturday's performance, the conductor showed his fine control of thick Ivesian textures. "Decoration Day" glowed with broad color and telling detail. But a certain holiday zest was missing from the "The Fourth of July."
Another monument to American anarchy was John Cage's "Renga," a semi-improvisatory piece for 78 players, performed simultaneously with the same composer's "Apartment House 1776." Four surviving members of the Grateful Dead joined the orchestra, but went unheard in the general melee. The performance by the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra accumulated cold, clashing sonorities.
John Adams, a resident of Berkeley across the bay, supplied an incisive, somewhat brutal new overture, "Lollapalooza." The San Francisco Symphony Chorus sang hymns of William Billings and other pre-Revolutionary Americans; these sometimes matched the "maverick" thesis, sometimes sounded ordinary. Over all, the program lacked focus and balance.
Much better was the Sunday afternoon marathon, which brought back the Grateful Dead members. Part of the fascination of the weekend was the sight of a concert hall overrun by ebullient young Deadheads. Mr. Tilson Thomas's audience-gathering ploy was neither desperate nor gratuitous: the band's noisier improvisations carry avant-garde cachet, and the bassist Phil Lesh, a former student of Luciano Berio, has supported recordings of offbeat 20th-century classical repertory.
Deadheads patiently waited three hours for their idols. (The band had not played together since the death of Jerry Garcia.) What gave joy to 20th-century classical fans in the audience was the crowd's increasingly enthusiastic response to some cannily chosen pieces: Henry Cowell's "cluster" piano works; Varese's incomparably steely "Ionisation" for percussion; Steve Reich's "Clapping Music," and Lou Harrison's seductively rambunctious Concerto for Organ and Percussion.
Avuncular and wry, Mr. Harrison was master of ceremonies of the Sunday marathon, reminiscing about composer friends like Cowell and Harry Partch. Such close, knowing contact with California composers looks to be Mr. Tilson Thomas's most significant achievement.
The afternoon ended with " 'Space' for Henry Cowell," created jointly by members of the Grateful Dead and Mr. Tilson Thomas. The free-form dissonant improvisation was underpinned by angular melodies drawn from Cowell. Mr. Tilson Thomas impressively kept pace, wailing on the piano with a technique indebted to Conlon Nancarrow and Cecil Taylor. "Incredible," "intense" and "really cool" were heard on the way out.
Mr. Tilson Thomas managed a difficult balancing act, engaging a new audience without abandoning his own musical principles. With the modernistically disciplined Esa-Pekka Salonen in Los Angeles to the south, the gravitational center of American orchestral life has shifted westward.