In keeping with the idea of the Mavericks Festival presenting “new classics,” the entire first half of the program for the fourth concert of the Mavericks Festival series with the San Francisco Symphony had never been performed before. Two substantial new works premiered on this concert, both of which by composers fast becoming household names. Mason Bates, famous for blending the electronic sound world of the DJ with that of classical music, and John Adams, arguably the most famous American composer alive today. As with the other concerts on this series I’ve attended, the audience was both palpably excited and had a higher percentage of the “younger crowd” classical music organizations are so desperate to draw.
The first piece on the concert was Mason Bates’ new work Mass Transmission. This work is without a doubt my favorite piece Bates has written thus far. Scored for chorus with organ and electronica, Mass Transmission blends the tone qualities of the three different “instruments” together seamlessly. The text for the piece is taken from two separate sources, and describes a Dutch mother’s conversation with her daughter, who is working as a page for the colonial government in Java. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus, with soloists Alexandra Sessler and Danielle Reutter-Harrah, sang mostly long sustained lines that blended seamlessly with Paul Jacobs’s organ playing and Bates’ own performance of the electronica elements of the composition. In the second section of the work, the SFS Chorus performed passages influenced by Javanese Gamelan in counterpoint, to punctuate a text describing the experience of living in Java. The organ joined the gamelan texture, and the electronic sounds added to the atmosphere of the piece, using (among other things) samples of radio static, birdsong, and other field recordings from the jungle. The entire piece presented a very calm tranquil atmosphere, and was a great way to settle in for an evening of great new music.
Next on the program was the new Adams work, Absolute Jest. The piece is composed around a series of brief musical quotes, mostly from Beethoven. Adams compared working with Beethoven’s material to “playing wiffle ball with Barry Bonds,” but I think the end result was stunning, as well as hilariously fun. I laughed out loud several times during the concert, especially where Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata comes in, and where the rhythm is borrowed from Stravinksy’s Rite Of Spring. The piece also quotes from Beethoven’s 9th and 7th symphonies extensively and several of his later string quartets (especially Opp. 127 and 131). In keeping with the title, most of the musical quotes came from scherzo movements (scherzo is Italian for “joke”). I can’t wait for a recording of this work to be released, both because I enjoyed it so very much, and because it is my new piece to cite whenever anybody claims Adams is a minimalist composer. There was nothing at all minimalist about this piece. The St. Laurence String Quartet did a fabulous job, and captured the spirit of the work wonderfully. The mean-tuned gongs added just a tad of microtonal (and west-coast) spice at either end, to bookend the work with a hint of both mystery and jest.
After intermission was Feldman’s gorgeous Piano and Orchestra, with Emmanuel Ax at the keys. Both the piece and the performance were absolutely stunningly beautiful. A nice break from the sometimes frantic activity levels of the rest of the concert, Feldman’s collection of calm expressions and soft gestures spread around the hall’s “canvas of silence”. There were lots and lots of coughs, which eventually became almost a part of the texture (in a Cageian sense anyway). I especially liked the echo motive between the solo pianist and the orchestral pianist (Robin Sutherland). As well as the large swells in the orchestra followed immediately by chords in the solo piano, giving the impression of a dynamic mirror, almost reminiscent of Berg.
The concert came to a raucous close with Varèse’s Ameriques. It was a very loud and fun end to the program. There were 14 percussionists plus celesta and timpani on stage, supplementing an extremely large orchestra (which included two contra bassoons, alto flute, and a more-than-full compliment of brass and woodwinds). The stage was jammed with players and instruments, which all together did a great impression of city streets, complete with sirens. During Thursday’s performance there were a couple of tense moments surrounding a misplaced downbeat, but the audience loved the performance nonetheless.
I would have to say that of the four different programs I’ve been to on the Mavericks series this year, this concert was far and away my favorite. The programming felt very effective, I enjoyed each of the works presented, and also the variety of sounds and effects produced by the different groups of instruments involved. Although the whole program called for large ensembles, there was also the feeling of musical intimacy usually associated with chamber music. The Bates had only three “instruments” if you count the entire SFS Chorus as one voice, the Adams featured a string quartet as soloist(s), and the Feldman was so carefully crafted that each and every musician was both a part of a larger fabric and and indispensable individual voice in the texture. A wonderful evening, so good I went back for seconds!
Kelsey Walsh is a pianist and currently resides in San Francisco. Follow her on twitter: @kwpianist