MTT and SF Symphony in “Music for a Modern Age.”

A spectacle! A spectacle!

Michael Tilson Thomas and the SF Symphony put on a grand show last Friday, June 23, that went considerably beyond inventive and at times approached genius. Billed as “Music for a Modern Age,” the program opened with Charles Ives’ 1908 musings on tonality and life, and then ended with George Antheil’s 1925 in-your-face Jazz Symphony. In between were the West Coast Premiere of Michael Tilson Thomas’ own remarkable work, Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, and selections from Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin and American Gamelan.

The originality of MTT’s classical/jazz spectacle was completely unexpected, as was the vocal virtuosity of Measha Brueggergosman, who scaled the difficult score and made it her own.

Combining compelling music with that diva and two divine “back-up” singers, along with video on screens surrounding the stage, dance, costumes, lighting and the sepulchral poetry of Carl Sandburg, made this an awe-inspiring spectacle.

And then another spectacle! The evening ended with MTT’s re-envisioning of Antheil’s symphony as a dance party, again with video, but this time with piano and trumpet fireworks.

So where to begin describing such a rich program?  Charles Ives is probably a good place, and the threads of his two works spun their way through the night. The product of an unorthodox musical upbringing that included the roots of polytonality, Ives is known for the way he interleaved and juxtaposed the sounds of small town life with the atonal brashness of early experimental music. In his 1905 From the Steeples and the Mountains, Ives pitted the beaten sounds of church bells against brass. Those “bells” – and there were five percussionists in the balconies beating on three large arrays of gongs – slowly stepped down a major scale, and then the brass stepped in. The two textures overlapped, wails amid shimmers, for a sound that was a knife’s edge away from both beauty and pain, then evanesced on a gong’s reverberations.

MTT staged Ives’ 1908 The Unanswered Question in a way that made each element understandable and digestible, and that made it gripping. The trumpet stood in a bright spotlight at the front of the upper balcony, and his statements descended from above like celestial pronouncements. The winds were onstage, moved by obscure motives into an atonal frenzy of questions, while the strings were massed at the entrance, their languid diatonic chords creating a pillowy ground that was literally behind us, as well as a metaphor for music of the past. Staged like this, what was apparent was that every voice has its truth, and when they join in apparent dissonance they create the tensions and even the sorcery of the natural world.

That pure expression of such different truths led the way into MTT’s own multi-layered jazz/rock/orchestra work, and then on to Antheil’s savagely joyous piano concerto, with its French piquancy and primitivism.

Opening Four Preludes, Sandberg’s four texts were read out, beginning with hubris and turning to the ravages of time and the disinterest of rats. The music was constructed as a pastiche, cycling back and forth between a smooth chamber orchestra and the visceral back beats of a bar band. A bass clarinet interpreted the texts, mourning against a sparse orchestration of low sounds and sudden rumbles, as worrisome as the sudden hollow clatter of running feet. And then the band entered on a big upbeat, and lights flashed and the three singers dropped their cloaks and undulated in their scintillating skintight dresses. The audience loved that flash and sparkle, even while we were aware that it was a metaphor, dancing as the ship of civilization goes down. “Let the dead be dead,” sang Canadian mezzo Measha Brueggergosman.

Her milky mezzo was miked, and that was necessary both to glide over the harsh rhythms and to bring out the internal textures of her voice. When her lines soared, she melded complex classical arpeggios with jazz hiccups, and at the bottom of her register were growls as thick as bone broth.

That flash and menace and edge of destruction was a heady brew, and the long standing ovations were deserved.

Following intermission was another unusual pairing of textures, violin and gamelan, starring Associate Concertmaster Nadya Tichman and six percussionists in excerpts from a suite by Lou Harrison. This year is his centennial, but he also needs to be included in any short list of twentieth century American composers who flung themselves into the fray of Modernism. The violin part was demanding, each note having just enough time to achieve selfhood but not quite quick enough to glide past, and all in exotic scales to match the Javanese percussion.

And topping off a full program was Antheil’s early tribute to jazz. Peter Dugan was the piano soloist, assuming the part that Antheil would have played, and he was sparkling and disturbing at once. This was self-aware music that broke down barriers and deconstructed its own concerto, long before deconstruction was a “thing.”

Along with piano escapades that were sometimes brilliant and sometimes pure rhythm, were sultry jazz trumpet solos, delivered by Mark Inouye. And both of those artists had their “hands full,” as MTT’s re-imagining of this work included two dancers who each romanced one of the artists. In choreography by Patricia Birch, dancers Kiva Dawson and Erin Moore were superb. Just like the staging of the Ives, those dancers explored and made plain two separate musical strands, the sensuality of French cabaret and the vigor of African-influenced Creole dance, perhaps as it was in 1925 when Antheil first could have encountered Josephine Baker in Paris.

Topped off with a strip tease back-lit behind a screen, and artistic videos by Clyde Scott that enlarged and distorted the dancers like a quick dip into the German Expressionism of Antheil’s era, this was quite a night!

The SF Symphony presents a concert for every taste in its “Summer with the Symphony” concerts, starting July 4 at the Shoreline Amphitheater (with fireworks!) and continuing through July 29. Programs include Pixar in Concert (with film), A Night at the Moulin Rouge with Storm Large, Jaws with live orchestra, violinist Benjamin Beilman in Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, and lots more. See for calendar and tickets.

—Adam Broner

Photo below of Kara Dugan, Mikaela Bennett and Measha Brueggergosman (in gold dresses) with MTT and the SF Symphony; photo by Cory Weaver.

Playthings- MTT and SF Symphony