What Makes It Mavericky? The San Francisco Symphony Celebrates 100 Years

What Makes It Mavericky? The San Francisco Symphony Celebrates 100 Years

The San Francisco Symphony has been celebrating its centennial season this year with a slew of ambitious programs, including the return last month of its American Mavericks festival.

Written By

Sidney Chen



Leave the stage through the audience returning to the stage without leaving the theatre. Do this very slowly.

The San Francisco Symphony has been celebrating its centennial season this year with a slew of ambitious programs, including the return of its American Mavericks festival. In June 2000, six seasons into Michael Tilson Thomas’s tenure as music director, the symphony presented ten programs of 20th-century American music, a massive effort that has had a lasting impact on the identity of the orchestra. (A 150-page book that was published in conjunction with that festival can be downloaded free as a PDF here.) Last month’s festival featured five programs—three comprising primarily orchestral repertoire; two, chamber works—performed at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, some of which then went on tour to Chicago, Ann Arbor, and New York.

Big disclaimer up front: As a member of Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, I performed in Monk’s Realm Variations, one of the four works commissioned for the festival, and toured with the orchestra.



Play a game of solitaire (or play both or all sides of a game ordinarily involving two or more players).

The term “maverick” has obviously taken on other connotations in the intervening 12 years, so Tilson Thomas took pains to define what makes a composer mavericky in his estimation. In the video below (one of a series of engaging YouTube clips put together for the festival), he says it means “somebody who is pushing boundaries and exploring new sounds—made by traditional instruments, by introducing entirely new instruments, by using the vocabulary of electronics and now sounds generated through computer technology.” The 17 composers selected to represent this maverick approach to music-making are now familiar names to most listeners: Ives, Ruggles, Varèse, Cowell, Copland, Partch, Cage, Harrison, Foss, Feldman, Subotnick, Riley, Reich, Del Tredici, Monk, Adams, and Mason Bates.

In a separate statement, Tilson Thomas added, “What many of these composers have in common is their association with California, with the San Francisco Bay Area. …San Francisco has always been known for its independent, left-of-center spirit.” Indeed, that sense of nonconformity is one San Francisco value that is treasured by those who live here. The affection of the audience towards their hometown band, throwing its full weight behind a festival highlighting unconventional repertoire, was noticeable in both the attendance and the response to the performances.

Monk (singing), Norman (typing), Tilson Thomas (chopping) perform work by John Cage

Monk (singing), Norman (typing), Tilson Thomas (chopping) perform work by John Cage. Photo by Kristen Loken.



Prepare something to eat.

The marquee event of the series was arguably the production of John Cage’s Song Books, performed by the improbable trio of vocalists Joan La Barbara, Monk, and Jessye Norman, together with Tilson Thomas and eight musicians from the symphony, and staged by L.A.-based director Yuval Sharon. The Song Books from 1970 are subtitled “Solos for Voice 3 – 92,” but that simple description does not begin to convey the range of what the performers are asked to do or how a performance might be constructed. (James M. Keller’s program notes can be found here.) In the first San Francisco performance, the work was greeted with great enthusiasm overall, along with great confusion in some corners and great consternation in others. It certainly didn’t fail to elicit a response. The production was also performed in Ann Arbor and on the large stage at Carnegie Hall, and perusing the Internet will reveal many discussions and questions centered on whether it was Cageian enough in its execution: Is Tilson Thomas making a smoothie in a blender too shtick-y? Was Norman too operatic? And so on. For my part, I’m just happy that the San Francisco Symphony chose to present this marvelously inventive work on a large-enough scale to trigger these discussions.



Play a recording of a forest fire.

The challenge of performing the Maverick repertoire is you really have to throw yourself into it, sometimes doing things that can seem totally off-the-wall. …Anything goes, what the hell—we’ll just go for it. And that’s a quality that San Francisco Symphony definitely has.—Tilson Thomas

The orchestral works were programmed to the symphony’s strengths: outsized pieces like Varèse’s Amériques unleashed the crazy that SFS does exceptionally well. (It was also one of several opportunities throughout the festival to shine a spotlight on the percussion section, which was charged with everything from Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood to Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra, performed with organist Paul Jacobs.) Likewise, Absolute Jest, a new work by John Adams for string quartet and orchestra (premiered here by the St. Lawrence String Quartet), gave the musicians an opportunity to amp up the energy level in the room well past the standards of normalcy.

Paul Jacobs (organ), Mason Bates (electronica), Donato Cabrera (conductor) and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus in Bates's Mass Transmission. Photo by Kristen Loken

Paul Jacobs (organ), Mason Bates (electronica), Donato Cabrera (conductor) and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus in Bates’s Mass Transmission. Photo by Kristen Loken



Engage in some other activity than you did in Solos 8, 24, 28, and 62 (if any one of these was performed).

Along with Absolute Jest, three other works were commissioned by the symphony for this festival: Monk’s Realm Variations, for six voices and seven instruments; Subotnick’s Jacob’s Room: Monodrama, for vocalist Joan La Barbara, electronics, and chamber ensemble; and Bates’s Mass Transmission, for organ, electronics, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (a beloved institution in its own right). It escaped no one’s attention that of the 17 composers included in this festival, there was only one woman and only one who was born within the last 60 years. In the case of Bates, this placed the somewhat unfortunate burden on his approachable and un-thorny piece of having to represent the Maverick Spirit for all American composers who are not yet eligible for Social Security benefits.


PARTCH, photo courtesy of sfmike



Using a typewriter equipped with contact microphones, typewrite the following statement by Erik Satie thirty-eight times:

L’artiste n’a pas le droit de disposer inutilement du temps de son auditeur.

[The artist does not have the right to waste his listener’s time.]

Apart from the orchestral performances were two chamber music programs featuring members of the orchestra in various configurations, as well as outside artists. These more intimate performances allowed for some of the more unusual and enchanting sounds of the festival. Jeremy Denk drew out a large palette of unexpected colors in his performance of five solo piano works by Cowell, which called for stroking the length of the strings, strumming them like a harp, and inexplicably bringing forth melodies via cluster chords played with fists. And I wonder when we’ll ever have another chance to hear in Davies the sounds of the extraordinary instruments brought by the multitalented Los Angeles-based PARTCH, for their theatrical performances of Barstow and other works by the ultimate maverick Harry Partch.

harrison bells

Empty oxygen tanks, used as bells for Harrison’s Concerto for Organ and Percussion Orchestra. Photo by Annie Phillips, San Francisco Symphony



The text is from the first paragraph of the Essay on Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau. Sing in an optimistic spirit as though you believe what you are singing… Before singing this solo, raise either the black flag of Anarchy or the flag of the Whole Earth.

With five full programs of repertoire, there are too many moments that necessarily go unmentioned in a recap like this. Even so, I can’t let the mesmerizingly quiet and beautiful performance of Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra with Emanuel Ax fly completely under the radar. Juxtaposing it with the sheer decibel power of Amériques made for a wonderful and wild evening, in which all sounds seemed possible. Coming out of that concert reminded me of one of the most striking moments of the Song Books performance, when Monk came forth to declaim:

The best form of government is no government at all….
The b-b-b-b-b-b-best form is no f-f-f-form at all….
And that will be what we will have
When we are ready for it.

The San Francisco Symphony has announced plans to record three of the works from the festival next season, for release on their own label: Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra, with Paul Jacobs; Cowell’s Piano Concerto, with Jeremy Denk; and Carl Ruggles’s Sun-treader. If you need a Ruggles fix before then, Other Minds has just released the 1980 CBS Masterworks recording The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles with Tilson Thomas conducting the Buffalo Phiharmonic.

Excerpts from John Cage’s Song Books © 1970 by Henmar Press, Inc. Used with permission.