Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony present their 'American Mavericks' series in New York
Michael Tilson Thomas (who is one of my company's digital marketing and new media clients) and the San Francisco Symphony are the talk of the town this week in New York City. Their first two of four ‘American Mavericks’ programmes at Carnegie Hall were both hot tickets. I missed opening night (shame on me!), but on the second evening I caught a powerful programme that began with a pair of polar opposite works – Charles Ruggles’s fierce, granitic Sun-treader and Morton Feldman’s dreamy, colour-infused Piano and Orchestra – and ended with a revelatory and extremely moving performance of Henry Brant’s A Concord Symphony, an orchestration of Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata.
Tilson Thomas first launched his celebration of America’s maverick composers – those creators who cut new paths for music and reimagined its sound if not its very meaning - 12 years ago in San Francisco (though he traces its lineage further back to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Monday Evening concerts, which he attended with great delight when he was young). ‘Mavericks’ has long been enormously popular with concertgoers, drawing large audiences in San Francisco (here in New York the crowd at the concert I attended was large and had plenty of young faces). Beginning with Charles Ives – whose music, MTT tells us, gives us the history of everything that would happen in American music afterwards – and embracing the likes of John Cage, Edgard Varèse, Lou Harrison, John Adams, Steve Mackey, Morton Feldman, Meredith Monk, Henry Cowell and Steve Reich, to name but a few – MTT has ranged from the minimalist to the epic with his curatorial vision and impassioned advocacy. As a descriptive term, the ‘Mavericks’ umbrella is a useful one, but it’s also a superb marketing hook, bringing together works that individually might seem especially hard to sell. ‘Mavericks’ is already a central component of the MTT legacy, and the cause of American music has been immeasurably enriched by it.
My appetite for last night’s concert was whet earlier this week when MTT, John Adams, and other special guests were hosted by WQXR (a client of my company’s) at the Greene Space, where they previewed the Carnegie Hall concerts (you can watch that event, which was webcast live, in its entirety here). Thanks to the work my company has done with pianist Jeremy Denk, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Ives’s Concord Sonata – perhaps the composer’s greatest masterpiece – many times both in live performance and on recording (he performs the ‘Alcotts’ movement in the Greene Space video). It has become one of my favourite piano works, and when MTT enthused about how the Brant orchestration of it may have added a major new masterpiece to the orchestral repertoire, I could hardly wait to hear it.
Ives described his Concord Sonata as ‘an attempt to present (one person’s) impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a half century ago. This is undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne.’
I won’t lie: the massive scope of the sonata, its densely packed notes and irregular rhythms, took a long while for me to warm up to, much less comprehend (if anything by Ives, who reveled in the great mysteries of the cosmos, could be truly comprehended). Still, hearing Brant’s orchestration made me feel that I had somehow come full circle with the Concord and that it was now completely a part of me.
The muscularity of Ives’s opening movement, ‘Emerson’, is emphasised by the churning strings and Brant’s use of the brass, which give us the boldest underlining of Ives’s quotation of the fateful ‘da-da-da-daaa’ theme from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (the entire work is is specked with it, as well as many other musical quotes). But there are contrasting moments of albeit fleeting tenderness.
‘Hawthorne’ comes next, and here Brant’s vivid orchestration really illuminates the delight and fantasy in Ives’s writing. In a few brief quiet interludes, the listener emerges in a clearing where the radiance of the starlit heavens provides moments of utter serenity. And try not to chuckle when the orchestra busts out into Ives’s own Country March Band!
‘The Alcotts’ often moves me to tears in the original piano version, and it did so in Brant’s orchestration. Here, the Beethoven motif is at first transformed into a simple song reminiscent of Copland, though it returns louder and more defiant later on. As James Keller notes in his programme booklet, ‘Hearth and home infuse this movement. Picture the family singing hymns and parlor songs.’ After a final, surging expression of the main theme, the movement ends in a spirit of dignified calm.
The final movement, ‘Thoreau’, pays tribute to the author of Walden Pond, that seminal Transcendentalist work affirming that man removes himself from nature at his own peril (I read this book once a year to remind myself that there’s more to life than what you find in The Big City, and it never lets me down). Brant’s orchestration here reminds us that for Ives, communing with nature provides both solace as well as a sense of man’s smallness in the grand scheme of things. The work fades away in an enigmatic haze.
A few parting media notes: you can hear the Ives/Brant Concord Symphony yourself on MTT’s live recording of it with the San Francisco Symphony for its own label. And if you have a few minutes to spare, you might enjoy MTT discussing ‘Mavericks’ with Leonard Lopate on WNYC.