American Mavericks #8: Mackey Rocks, Ives Rolls

Earl Brown's Cross Sections and Color Fields also featured.

[Editor's Note: is on-site to cover the San Francisco Symphony's American Mavericks series — which runs June 7–24 — to an extent that has never before been attempted on the Web. Click here to access our complete news, radio, photographic and video coverage of the festival.]'s John D. Van Hagen reports:

SAN FRANCISCO — The New World Symphony went "electric" Tuesday in the eighth installment of the Mavericks series, offering the West Coast premiere of Steve Mackey's electric guitar concerto Tuck and Roll. But the musical electricity of the night was sparked by Charles Ives' Symphony #2.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas was on hand to lead the orchestra he helped found in 1987, assisted by composer/guitarist Mackey.

The evening began with composer Earle Brown's Cross Sections and Color Fields. Brown's music is inspired by the visual arts, specifically the mobiles of visual artist Alexander Calder. Like Calder's mobiles, the sonorities of Brown's music tend to waft lazily across the stage, at times seemingly defying gravity and time itself.

From the stage Thomas said the work was "inspired by the world of freedom of sound."

Especially impressive were the extensive dynamic contours used to mark points on the tonal landscape and the brilliant use of muted strings and brass.

Brown's piece was the calm before the storm unleashed by Mackey and the orchestra. The composer worked his way through a multitude of fiery virtuoso passages on his guitar, but as a whole, Tuck and Roll lacked an overarching cohesive framework. In one movement, a polyrhythmic hand-clapping duet appeared and then vanished without being explored by the rest of the ensemble. This would become a pattern in the piece, where musical ideas that could have contributed greatly to the overall structure were presented once and then carelessly thrown by the wayside.

One bright spot was the lyrical third movement, Intrigue. Here, thematic statements stood a slightly better chance of surviving the first few stanzas and were able to build an almost stable structural foundation.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Ives' Symphony #2.

The opening movement harked back to the lush string textures of Brahms. Oboist Zheng Huang's brooding solo near the end of the movement was filled with a wonderful sense of longing and a lush, full tone.

The work evolved from the energetic strings of the second movement to a pristine moment during the third that suggested the intimacy of a chamber group.

The brief fourth movement showcased thunderous horns and low brass, while the fifth movement was propelled by the intensity and drive of the string section and Tilson Thomas, generating an unstoppable force.