Tilson Thomas' 'American Mavericks' Spotlights Modern Composers

Edgard Varèse, Frank Zappa, John Cage among those featured in San Francisco Symphony series.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas will lead the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra — and impetuous aficionados — through the dizzying sonic thrills and chills of 20th-century classical music during the upcoming festival American Mavericks.

The event, which is set for San Francisco's Davies Hall, June 7–24, features a stunning array of 17 composers, ranging, alphabetically, from A (John Adams) to Z (Frank Zappa), in a 12-concert span.

What the various composers and compositions have in common was summed up by Tilson Thomas when he announced the festival in February: "The American Mavericks are voyagers, iconoclasts, pioneers of the American sound. They were free-spirited. They kept irregular hours, many of them. Most of them were politically radical.

"They were interested in sound for sound's sake. They were not writing music for a concert society. Many of them never expected their pieces to be performed. And this is the group of people who, in retrospect, contributed the majority of the original musical ideas of the 20th century."

Highlights of the series will include the West Coast premieres of George Antheil's "Ballet mécanique" for 16 electronic keyboards and minimalist godfather Steve Reich's "Hindenburg," a multimedia masterwork with video by Beryl Korot. Reich also will perform two concerts of his "Music for Eighteen Musicians" with his ensemble.

Tilson Thomas and Adams will conduct two concerts with the New World Symphony, which will make its Bay Area debut with performances of works by Adams, Earle Brown, Charles Ives, Steve Mackey, Conlon Nancarrow, Edgard Varèse and Zappa.

And the music of two warhorses of 20th-century American music, Aaron Copland and Lou Harrison, also will be featured. The program "A Copland Journey" will trace the composer's long and winding musical road, which spanned the better part of the century, in a series of his early and late compositions. The inclusion of Harrison is particularly apt, given the fact that he has been one of the guiding lights of the American avant-garde for nearly half the century.

Along the way, American Mavericks will offer everything from the uncompromisingly cerebral creations of Elliott Carter to the popular, dance-oriented music of jazz pioneer Duke Ellington. The scale of ensembles is equally diverse, ranging from Milton Babbitt's "Philomel" for soprano and tape to the massive orchestral task force involved in the performance of Ives' Symphony No. 4.

In a special event scheduled for June 7, Tilson Thomas will host a discussion on the American Mavericks with members of the orchestra and others. Audience members also will be invited to bring their own instruments to take part in a performance of Riley's epochal "In C," which has been described as the " 'Eroica' of minimalism."

The breadth and scope of American Mavericks is nothing new to Tilson Thomas. Throughout his career, he has displayed a singular devotion to modern American music. Indeed, he opened his current tenure with the San Francisco Symphony in 1995 with "Parade for MTT," a piece by Harrison that was commissioned by the orchestra. In that first season, every program on the orchestra's subscription series included an American work.

Earlier this month, the festival unveiled its Web site (www.americanmavericks.com), which includes program notes, news and music audio clips. Tickets also can be purchased online.