Open any major orchestra’s season brochure, run your finger down the small-print list of dates, soloists, conductors, composers, catalogue numbers, and titles, and you may discover no good reason to attend one concert rather than another. The standard menu of transcendent musical experiences, adorned with thumbnail mug shots of musicians and a few adjectives like “romantic” and “otherworldly,” doesn’t help with basic dilemmas: Shaham or Mutter? Bruckner or Brahms? K. 453 or Op. 73? The fact that so many orchestras have trouble even acknowledging the public’s puzzlement helps explain why the classical-music business is flailing.
To combat the indifference bred by confusion, next month Carnegie Hall hosts “Spring for Music,” a weeklong roundup of North American orchestras making their best pitches for survival. Many of the concerts look promising, but obscurity is still the default mode: The Alabama Symphony has put Beethoven’s Seventh on a program with music by Avner Dorman and Paul Lansky, and if there’s a powerful logic to that combination, nobody’s making it obvious. Yet there was no mistaking the zeal and focus, the you-gotta-hear-this! urgency of the “American Mavericks” festival that recently filled Carnegie Hall with a week of strange and marvelous sounds. Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony and a gang of similarly minded ensembles on an expedition into the ornery heart of twentieth-century American music—music made by the kind of people who like to pound and whisper and stuff chords full of juicy dissonances. A few listeners who wandered in expecting more anodyne stuff may have sat in shock, but mostly the hall buzzed with pleasure. I won’t soon forget the sight of the conductor making a fruit-and-vegetable smoothie, the singer Joan La Barbara delivering a wrapped gift to an audience member, or Meredith Monk being filmed by Tilson Thomas while she placed a stone on the stage, singing all the time. That performance, of John Cage’s Song Books, was so dizzyingly spectacular, so full of elaborately choreographed mayhem, that for a while I lost track of the imposing soprano Jessye Norman, until I caught her clacking away at a typewriter. Leave it to Cage to create an environment where Norman, Monk, and La Barbara—three great American singers who inhabit different corners of the music world—could amiably coexist.
With these concerts, Tilson Thomas was rearguing a case he’s been making since well before the 2008 presidential campaign hollowed out the word maverick. Charles Ives, Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, Morton Feldman, Lou Harrison, Cage—these school-less loners form the tough spine of twentieth-century American music. They didn’t genuflect to European traditions, or huddle behind isms, and they fashioned a canon of oddball masterpieces. One of the most persuasive arguments for this version of history was a performance (with Paul Jacobs) of Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra so crackling, exuberant, and lyrically gorgeous that it sounded like the American classic it deserves to be.
The critic Kyle Gann has written that American music began when two composers in different parts of the country (Ives in New England, Cowell in California) started hammering their fists and forearms on the piano keyboard. Cowell also told the era’s quintessential anecdote, when he described finding Ruggles at the piano, banging out a single chord over and over again. “I’ll give this chord the test of time right now,” Ruggles harrumphed. “If I find I still like it after trying it over several thousand times, it’ll stand the test of time, all right!” Ruggles’s Sun-Treader is the archetypal maverick opus, a masterpiece of roughness that, maybe for that reason, rarely gets played. Tilson Thomas led a scorching performance, making its great thundering orchestral chords sound like the steps of some divine Godzilla.
Of course, corralling mavericks into a group makes about as much sense as the crowd in Monty Python’s Life of Brian shouting in unison: “Yes! We’re all individuals. Yes! We’re all different.” Today, just about any composer would be happy to be included under that elastic rubric. The festival showcased new work by John Adams and Mason Bates, whose music is far more endearing than that of their cussed predecessors. Adams strewed bits of Beethoven into his tongue-in-cheek Absolute Jest, where the timpani motif from the Ninth Symphony, shards of late quartets, and other scraps of scherzi faded into the glare like gold chips in a pan of mica. The score glimmered amiably, and the audience practically purred.
The dead composers on the roster, though, courted hostility. An inspired stubbornness unites Feldman, who could spend ten minutes blissfully rubbing a pair of notes together, with Ives, whose scores are like overstuffed suitcases, trailing half-marches, stray chords, and tendrils of melody. Feldman’s parsimony and Ives’s excess of excess belong to the same universe of immoderation. If they make a noise, it’s going to be noisy, damn it; if they call for a pianissimo, it had better be the sort you can barely hear.
Tilson Thomas made conducting this music seem fun the way extreme sports are fun: You need precision and skill to savor the danger. In Edgard Varèse’s gleefully deafening Amériques, he managed the whole delirious affair with refined precision. This was no shaggy jam session, but a rigorous evocation of a freak-out. You could forgive an orchestra for lapsing back into mildness after that, but night after night the San Franciscans sustained a stunning level of intensity. Playing any 30 seconds of Feldman requires total, concentrated absorption; playing the twenty minutes of his non-concerto Piano and Orchestra demands a yogic focus and a hush that’s nearly impossible to achieve in a room filled with nearly 3,000 people. Tilson Thomas pleaded with the audience for silence, and got it. And at the end of the festival, when the last jangle died away, a message hung in the air, a defiant murmur directed to “Spring for Music” and a whole industry groping its way through an identity crisis: You want to rouse an audience with orchestral music? This is how it’s done.