Stemming from a family of top vaudeville performers, symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas would inevitably strike his show-business colors eventually.
After two decades’ serious-minded leadership of the San Francisco Symphony, he brought forth an astonishing orchestral concert of American Moderns augmented with colored lights, hot dancers, jazz ensemble, projections, spatial (but not spacey) musicians’ placement, video and singers in glitzy spangled outfits. Did your recent symphony program list both a stage director and choreographer like Michael’s, perchance?
This main-stage program was a natural outgrowth of his experimental and intimate night-clubby concept SoundBox combining musical rarities with light-show visuals.
While traditionalists might blanche, MTT’s large audience got more than they bargained for. The Jazz Age came back to life with silent-screen film and a very much alive and lithe Erin Moore emulating the late Josephine Baker, the Parisian dance star. This played to the sounds of George Antheil’s highly episodic and deliberately bizarre “A Jazz Symphony” (1925). En route trumpet principal Mark Inouye struggled with his wah-wah mute solo while being fondled from behind by the exotic dancer, who eventually drew four mesmerized men out of the orchestra to form her rhythm section prancing about stage. MTT meanwhile conducted both an SFS ensemble and a jazz band in Antheil’s amiably schizophrenic composition, which featured samba music, salon music, and even pseudo-Lisztian fragments.
In a much more musical vein, MTT linked two standards by Charles Ives. For the intriguing puzzler “The Unanswered Question” (1908), while the nattering malcontents in the woodwinds played on stage, and the unperturbed strings stood behind us all, the mystery five-note question was repeatedly posed from a high balcony by the Gabriel-like trumpeter Inouye. This followed a percussion piece cum brass simulating church bells pealing, “From the Steeples to the Mountains.”
A bit less gaudy, the recent “Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind” by MTT himself featured the volcanic, volatile and amplified voice of singer Measha Brueggergosman, who was equally at home in the soprano, mezzo and blues idioms (the latter her strongest suit). I don’t know how poet Carl Sandburg would’ve reacted to her running all over the stage while his poetry was sung, accompanied by two other backup singers like contemporary Valkyries, nor to projections conjuring up hot night-spot environments. But the thoroughly eclectic music runs back and forth between modern-classical and jazz, media in which composer MTT is mutually at home.
Rounding out the concert were sedate excerpts from Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, with Nadya Tichman as the unflappable soloist.
The full house went with the flow, loving every minute, even the innovative show-biz, which took a considerable budget and rehearsal time. At the June 23 performance in Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, not a one booed or make catcalls.
MUSIC NOTES—That amazing innovator of a century ago, Charles Ives, was quite neglected. His “Steeples” piece was never performed till four decades after composition. And his magnum opus Symphony No. 4 suffered a similar fate.
American Moderns with the S.F. Symphony and elaborate visual acoutrements and guest dancers, singers; MTT Music Director, conceptual creator and composer. Davies Hall, June 23-25. For SFS info: (415) 864-6000, or go online.