Classical Music Review: New Releases

San Francisco Symphony presents Pan-American Mavericks. Music by Brant, Varese, Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos. December 8, 2001,  Davies Symphony Hall, San Franciso, CA.

There were so few musicians onstage when we went into Davies that I swore the orchestra was on strike. But no, it was a program change by Michael Tilson Thomas, and the reduced number of players were getting ready to perform Varese's Deserts (1950-54) as the opener of its second Mavericks concert in its current subscription series. This one, which focussed on the Pan-American variety, was a sort of follow-up or extension of the conductor's ambitious summer 2000 American Mavericks festival, and it made a strong case for its composers as avant-gardists.

No one has ever accused Varese of being anything but, and the "Italo-Burgundian cyclone", in Virgil Thomson's amusing description, doesn't make it easy on performers or listeners.  The composer's non-melodic music also often seems more the product of science than of art, and the 25 minute Deserts happily combines both disciplines -- science in the use of Varese's musique concrete tape part, and art in its carefully planned sounds.  And though all of a piece with his other works, it focusses more on a procession of sonic events than on collisions per se, and in form resembles a chopped-up march. Varese's wind/percussion mixtures are always powerful, though Davies' unyielding acoustic -- in Row G at least -- made Deserts sound more metallic than it really is (your reviewer's incipient cold didn't help either). Still one couldn't help feeling that positioning the players at some distance from each other on the stage might have given the sounds more clarity and punch, and added to its internal drama. Though not a spatial piece, space was obviously part of Varese's composing plan.

Henry Brant uses it as an integral ingredient of his music. His 21 minute Ice Field : Spatial Narratives for Large and Small Orchestral Groups (2001), co-commissioned by Other Minds and the SFS, contrasts different musical families through spatial means. This results in often striking opposed sonorities because blending isn't part of the game. To this end Brant has deployed strings, two pianos, two harps, and tympanist on stage, oboes and bassoons in the organ loft or terrace, brass and jazz drummers in the first tier, piccolos and clarinets in threes in the second, with low percussion in the orchestra level side boxes of the second tier, and Brant himself playing the Ruffati organ onstage, with Tilson Thomas and Bradley Lubman handling the conducting duties. Raucous, severe, and lyric, Ice Field had many provocative effects -- vaguely Asian chords, steel drums vs. string figures, serious episodes for cellos and double basses, and strident overblowing passages for massed winds. The high color contrasts produced by the 93-piece orchesta were dramatic and full of bite. Though the complex set-ups Brant favors mitigate against frequent performances, that here sounded accurate, communicative, and highly entertaining. And the composer, who's orchestrated for everyone from Benny Goodman to the great Alex North, obviously knows his way around an amazing variety of instruments, and must have had a ball writing the piece.

The now widely performed but still underrated Astor Piazzolla was represented by the 14 minute Tangazo: Variaciones sobre Buenos Aires (1969). It had lots of duende, the Arabo-Hispano word for passio, and Piazzolla gets that in different ways. One was to layer a tango lament over his initial idea, which appears int eh lower strings, with winds entering 7 minutes later to sombre yet brilliant effect. Tangazo also got some of its most visceral colors from the sounds of bows being slapped and violins being hit by hands.

Villa-Lobos' 12 minute Choros # 10 (Rasga o Coracao) (1926) was the most compact, and expansive piece on the program and made the biggest splash, though MTT, ever the smart-ass, dissed it by comparing it to the music for an Esther Williams movie. Theatrical and dramatic it certainly was, but cheap and tawdry no. Scored for huge orchestra including Brazilian percussion instruments like the caxambu (a hollowed-out tree trunk with leather or parchment membrane), and reco-reco (notched wooden scraper), and performed here by a chorus of 140 which included a smaller one chanting a heavily accented rhythm, and driven by the relentless beat of the macumba, Choros had color and power to burn. Tilson Thomas' familiarity with the score -- he's recorded it -- certainly showed, and the orchestra's exuberant performance brought down the house.

Michael McDonagh