American Mavericks

Press Room

Critical Acclaim for the San Francisco Symphony’s
American Mavericks Festival & Tour
March 8-30, 2012

“For this series, part of the orchestra’s centennial celebrations, Mr. Thomas, who has been music director of the San Francisco Symphony since 1995, could have shown off his players in works by Mahler and Beethoven. Instead he adventurously explored the heritage of flinty individualism that runs through American music. The risk paid off, because the hall was packed with eager listeners.

After intermission on Tuesday, with the stage reset, the program gave the orchestra chances to demonstrate its full symphonic excellence….

The highlight was Morton Feldman’s 1975 “Piano and Orchestra,” so called to make clear that this 23-minute piece is not a typical concerto. The pianist Emanuel Ax distinguished himself in the solo part, which, on its surface, might not seem very hard. This pervasively soft and self-contained music emerges in staggered phrases of sustained chords and sonorities. There is sometimes a little squiggle, sometimes a hint of a melodic line. Mr. Ax played every chord and figure with beautiful voicing, elegance and the concentration of a Zen master. Now that takes impressive technique and musicianship.”

– Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, March 29, 2012


“Tilson Thomas’s crusade on behalf of what he calls “American mavericks” tradition is among the finest things that he or any conductor has undertaken in recent years.”
Alex Ross, The New Yorker, February 27, 2012


“…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… 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… 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 want to rouse an audience with orchestral music? This is how it’s done.”

-Justin Davidson, New York Magazine, April 8, 2012


“Varèse’s 1921 juggernaut Amériques, which concluded the first concert, received an opulent, flawlessly balanced performance, avoiding the sense of overkill that can ensue in less assured hands.”

“Tilson Thomas and the San Franciscans were at their best in honoring the monuments of the maverick tradition…Other orchestras hardly touch this music, but in San Francisco it has become standard fare, and the authority of the playing was staggering.”

– Alex Ross, The New Yorker, April 16, 2012


“About six months after Michael Tilson Thomas began his tenure with the San Francisco Symphony in 1995, I asked him what he hoped people would think about the orchestra in years to come. He answered: ‘America’s most fearless, most dangerous and most generous orchestra — that’s what I’d like them to think.’  Mission accomplished.

” The latest proof is the remarkable four-day American Mavericks festival that Tilson Thomas and his charges bring this week to the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor. No other American orchestra would dare do such audacious programming. Four concerts sweep through the experimental wing of American classical music dating back a century, encompassing signature pieces by 14 composers, most still unfamiliar to the majority of concertgoers.”

– Detroit Free Press, Mark Stryker, March 18, 2012


“After weeks of build-up, the American Mavericks Festival opened Thursday night at Davies Symphony Hall. It delivered what Michael Tilson Thomas has been promising: to connect the dots through a century’s worth of music that somehow defines an American sound — in-your- face, yet poetic, an audacious sort of vision. It isn’t a scientific definition, but you can feel what he means… [Of the Lou Harrison Concerto for Organ wtih Percussion Orchestra] It sounds like Messiaen sat down with Sun Ra, took some LSD, then traveled to Bali, jamming out with a gamelan orchestra and ceremonial drum corps. Thursday, under Tilson Thomas’s direction, there were eight percussionists on stage, creating a crisp forest of sounds — golden, breezy, hip-swayingly tropical, with gentle bonging sonorities coming from un-pitched percussion instruments invented by Bill Colvig, Harrison’s late partner.”
Rich Scheinin, Mercury News, March 9, 2012


“In the fall of 1995 the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas opened his inaugural program as music director of the San Francisco Symphony with the premiere of Lou Harrison’s “Parade.” This was not just a festive piece to begin a new era. Mr. Thomas was signaling that under his leadership the orchestra would champion idiosyncratic American composers, especially West Coasters like Harrison…His music was totally out, whether you were on the Barber-Copland side of things or the Babbitt-Sessions side of things,” Mr. Thomas was quoted as saying in a 1997 article on Harrison in The New York Times. These days Harrison, who died in 2003 at 85, is more hot than out. For this Mr. Thomas’s American Mavericks venture can take some credit.
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, February 24, 2012


“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… the music making was sublime… 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.

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.”
Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2012


“There will be plenty of time in the coming week for delicacy, nuance and indirection. But first, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony led off the American Mavericks Festival in Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday night with a bang – and a crash.

Joyful and somewhat pugnacious clangor, after all, is an essential part of the American experimental tradition in music. It was implanted there from the beginning by Charles Ives, who had a personal fondness for this sort of thing, and strengthened through the generations by the better strains of the American national character, including rugged individualism and a certain disdain for decorum.
Those qualities and many more infused the great “Concord Symphony,” which returned to Davies for a thrilling reprise after its local premiere in 2010. The “Concord” Sonata, Ives’ world-encompassing piano finger-buster, was turned into a symphony by the late Henry Brant, and it plays superbly in its new orchestral guise.

The piece comprises musical portraits of four figures from the Transcendentalist movement (Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcott family and Thoreau) and as with any good portrait, it tells as much about its creator as about its subjects. Ives’ rhetoric veers wonderfully from the world-shaking to the intimate to the spiritual, making room along the way for marches, hymn tunes, grand bursts of cacophony and plentiful citations of the main motif from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
That stuffed quality, as well as the amazing virtuosity and resourcefulness of Brant’s orchestration, is what makes the “Concord Symphony” such a whirlwind of delight. Things come at you from all sides – often trampling one another in the mad rush – and hearing these strains spread throughout a large orchestra lends the piece an invigorating 3-D quality.

It’s also a challenge for the conductor to keep all those elements in place, and Thomas, a past master of Ives’ own orchestral music, led a dazzling account of the piece. The big full-bore effects registered thunderously but cleanly, and the gentler aspects of the work – the tender chorales studding the “Hawthorne” movement, the air of homeyness suffusing the Alcott parlor – came through with winning grace.”
Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle, March 10, 2012


“A good dose of musical eccentricity from old school visionaries/crazies who turned their backs on the rat race”
Marke Bieschke, San Francisco Bay Guardian 3/7/12


“As had been the case with the Opening Gala of this Centennial Season, the “main attraction” of the event was the sound of the Symphony itself in all its glory, in this case channeling some of the more full-throated Whitmanesque yawps of the twentieth century. MTT captured the essence of the “American maverick spirit” through all the intricacies of phrasing, balancing, and pacing a trio of representative compositions.”
Stephen Smoliar, March 9, 2012


“Mavericks Festival Starts with a triumph!.. If the performances — brash and often breathtaking — were any indication, Bay Area music lovers are in for an exciting 10 days.”

-Georgia Rowe, San Francisco Classical Voice review of Copland, Harrison, Ives opening night 3/12/12


“There’s an entirely different demographic at Davies Symphony Hall this week as the San Francisco Symphony brings back its famed American Mavericks series…Although the audience was smaller than usual (though very respectable for a new-music concert on a Sunday afternoon), the energy buzzed with a strange, added intensity. This ilk of concertgoers didn’t come to be entertained: They came to be challenged, to expand their horizons, to keep up with strange new ideas. This wasn’t your grandmother’s lovely matinee chamber music recital.
– Be’eri Mooalem review of March 11, 20120 Subotnick chamber concert


“The opening bill certainly got the show up and ready for the road in characteristically grand fashion. A brash and ravishing mix of big American works spanning the 20th century had packed houses at Davies Symphony Hall whooping and stomping right along with the enthusiastic musicians.

All the grandeur and wit of Ives’ score and the beautiful simplicity and dreaminess of the quieter moments of reflection were given another sympathetic reading by MTT and the musicians, who seem to be in perfect synch.

With MTT looking hip in athletic shoes that matched his cobalt blue pullover, and three wonderfully familiar female vocalists prowling the stage along with him, the Song Books selections were given vivid life. Some of it was just plain silly, and a lot of it was nonsensical, but with Cage that is part of the point. The majestic Jessye Norman was there to humorously take digs at her own diva personality, and the great Joan La Barbara and (personal favorite) Meredith Monk gleefully (albeit with straight faces) joined in the fun. Watching La Norman join the card game and later sit and peck at an old typewriter, Monk giving perfectly pitched pronouncements, and La Barbara regally moving throughout the auditorium and stage had me rapt with enjoyment. The rather elaborate sets by stage designer Daniel Hubp took forever to dismantle during the intermission, but added great visual backing for the projection designs of Jason Thompson and the brisk and intelligent pacing by director Yuval Sharon. I don’t know how this production will play on the road, but I’m predicting an enthusiastic response in the Big Apple. Cage would have loved it.”
Philip Campbell, Bay Area Reporter, March 15, 2012


“I loved this concert. Partch was breathtaking, Subotnick intense, Riley being the only piece on the program to use instruments we know in a familiar way. The audience was what one might expect for a new music concert: younger than usual for typical SFS crowd, and featured much more facial hair, piercings, and bright clothing than I’ve seen in Davies in a while.”
Kelsey Walsh, I Care if You Listen (blog), March 15, 2012


“John Adams’ “Absolute Jest” is a work of terrific imagination and out-of-the-gate energy. It opens with a paraphrase from Beethoven — the bounding rhythmic motif that starts the scherzo of Symphony No. 9 — and then sets to creating a world. We hear gentle janglings of percussion and soft peek-a-boo gestures from the winds: Life is emerging inside a big teeming organism, represented by the orchestra, which Adams sets to shimmering and pulsing….Like so many of Adams’ major pieces (the San Francisco Symphony has been commissioning them since 1981), this one is a dense forest; it’s going to take a while to learn its trails and other features. It almost bursts at the seams: The brass section gets menacing, like swarming bluefish; the strings deepen into a plangent aria; the string quartet rocks out with some Beethoven riffs, relentless. Thursday, leaning far back in his seat and pounding his right foot in time to his bowing, St. Lawrence violinist Geoff Nuttall clearly was feeling the ecstasy that attracts Adams.
Rich Scheinin, San Jose Mercury News, March 16, 2012


For press inquiries about American Mavericks Festival and its partner organizations, please use the links and contact information below.

San Francisco Symphony
Web Site Press Room
Phone:  (415) 503-5474

Carnegie Hall
Web Site Press Room
Phone:  (212) 903-9750

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Web Site Press Room

University Music Society
Web Site Press Room
Phone:  (734) 647-4020