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Music review: San Francisco Symphony's John Cage 'Song Books'

March 15, 2012 |  2:15 pm

Jessye Norman, from left, Michael Tilson Thomas and Meredith Monk perform John Cage's "Song Books."
The San Francisco Symphony is 100. Michael Tilson Thomas, who first conducted the orchestra 36 years ago, is in his 16th season as music director, and he has done more to give it a national profile than anyone else. But the anniversary that perhaps means the most for the San Francisco's unique brand is the 12th of Tilson Thomas’ American Mavericks festival.

A Mavericks celebration is going on here at Davies Symphony Hall with a two-week festival (that will also tour the Midwest and New York) and the remarkable thing about it is that -- in no small part due to Tilson Thomas’ powers of persuasion that get unlikely stars to perform unlikely music -- outlier composers don’t seem quite so mavericky anymore.

Wednesday night's program began with a half-hour staging of excerpts from John Cage’s anarchy-centric “Song Books.” The singers were Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk and Jessye Norman. Yes, that Jessye Norman, the regal opera star. She was magnificent. They all were.

“Song Books,” composed in 1970, is an epic compendium of Cage’s concerns at the time. These included the use of electronics to bring sonic presence to often quotidian activities (such as swallowing), new forms of music as theater, new forms of theater as music and radical politics (particularly anarchy as practiced by Thoreau). Cage further connected, in the “Song Books,” American experimentation with the elusive French composer Erik Satie and with the groundbreaking French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp.

Freedom for the performer is parceled out differently in the 89 solos. Some are lovely, lyrical pre-composed utterances, others ask performers to come up with their own interpretations of Thoreau’s beard or a sketch of Duchamp’s profile. Some are instructions for specific actions, others are less specific. The scores are original in their musical, poetical and typographical and graphic characteristics, making the collection as exceptional a work of art and literature as it is of music.

Cage does not call for a stage director, but the Davies production was elaborate and intelligently overseen by Yuval Sharon. Daniel Hubp created three pavilions on the stage. There were three neon flagpoles. One table on the stage was for card games, to which Norman eagerly joined in, and a chess set. Another held a typewriter and blender, with which Tilson Thomas made a smoothie. There were two pianos, chairs for a handful of instrumentalists who came and went, along with a large electronics control center.

The stage felt cramped (more of the hall’s space might have been used), and the electronics were tame (the blender and card playing would have benefited from sonic oomph). But the music making was sublime.

Although a pioneer in extended vocal techniques, La Barbara is also a master of pure and simple tone production. Monk is celebrated as a choreographer, a theater artist and a composer who has developed a unique vocal style. Norman is one of the grandest singers of her generation.

All may have passed their vocal prime some time ago, but the genius of “Song Books” is that it invited these special singers to find and focus on the center of their singular voices. They were not vocally shoehorned in by a composer but set free, and the evening became an exultation of larks, in the sense of both, so to speak, of uncaged birds and also as an occasion for humor.

Politics stayed out of it until near the end when Monk, in exalted voice, proclaimed Thoreau’s dictum, “The best form of government is no government at all.” The lyrical final moments were angelic with La Barbara intoning a kind of stilled Cagean plainchant while Norman became transfixed in the delicious delight of velvety Satie.

The second half of the program was devoted to the wild-man school of American orchestral music. In Lukas Foss’ 1967 “Phorion,” the prelude from a Bach violin partita was taken on a psychedelic orchestral trip. For Henry Cowell’s 1928 Piano Concerto, Jeremy Denk pounded his fists and forearms on the piano in rhythmic rapture. Meanwhile, Carl Ruggles’ 1931 “Sun-treader” was a study in stunning instrumental power and bravura.

This is classic classical-music Americana that has pretty much dropped off the orchestral repertory map. But the San Francisco Symphony -- which is being honored by PBS this month with national broadcasts of a documentary on the orchestra and Tilson Thomas’ marvelous show, “The Thomashefskys,” about his grandparents, who were stars of the Yiddish theater -- showed the same commitment and understanding that orchestral players normally give Beethoven and Mahler. Tilson Thomas was in his element. The audience was exuberant. It was a great evening to be an American.

RELATED:

Music review: Saluting our magnificent Mavericks

An epic John Cage work tests the chaos theory in Holland

Critic's notebook: Revelatory Henry Cowell revival at Lincoln Center

-- Mark Swed, from San Francisco

Photo: Jessye Norman, from left, Michael Tilson Thomas and Meredith Monk perform John Cage's "Song Books." Credit: Kristen Loken/San Francisco Symphony.

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