Bravo to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony for blowing the dust off of some of the boldest innovators America has produced. As part of a mini-festival at Carnegie Hall of 20th- and 21st-century composers who stretched musical and formal boundaries (to put it mildly), the program on Tuesday night was packed with rarely-played wonders. We are still learning to speak the language of this music, ninety years after some of it was written.

John Adams © Christine Alicino
John Adams
© Christine Alicino

An elaborate set covered the stage for excerpts from John Cage’s 1970 Song Books, a work that MTT described as “a kind of kit from which you, the performer, can come up with songs, speeches, actions, performances on other instruments, which all add up together to create a musical event.” In Song Books, Cage finds inspiration from fellow eccentrics such as Erik Satie, Marcel Duchamp, and Henry David Thoreau, reflected in song texts and choices of sampled sounds and video projections. Performers have full freedom as to materials used and timing of notated sounds, though Cage's instructions can be very specific, such as directing a player to present a gift of an apple or cranberries to someone in the audience, which Joan LaBarbara gave to the lady in J2.

Instead of chaos, distinct sections emerge, and the spontaneity draws the listener in to every event. Some examples: a player rustling a newspaper, then tearing sheets and crumpling them into balls; Jessye Norman spinning out Cage’s lush melodies, moving about the stage from one of three metallic structures (which also served as video screens) to a chess game at the back; a musician playing his bassoon with a violin bow, with limited effect; MTT chopping vegetables for a smoothie, adding a subtle percussion to the electronic sounds and prepared piano. With so much left to the performer, it helps to have three veterans rising to the occasion. Meredith Monk was in her element with smooth movements and otherworldly sounds; among LaBarbara's talents is a special skill for making inhuman noises, barking and hooting with aplomb; and Norman enriched the ensemble with the signature gorgeousness of her tone.

Henry Cowell is credited with coining the term “tone clusters,” in which the piano is played with a fist or even a stick for an unforgettable dissonance. In his 1930 piece Synchrony, originally intended as a collaboration with Martha Graham, clusters appear, but scattered through inventive orchestrations. An extended chromatic trumpet solo (intelligently phrased by Mark Inouye) provides source material for the rest of the work, with three piccolos answering with the same material in a resonant cluster in motion. MTT and the players deftly negotiated the ebbs and flows of the complicated piece, though the thicker harmonies of the work occasionally produced a muddled texture.

John Adams’ 2011 Absolute Jest, essentially a concerto for string quartet and orchestra, was the newest piece on the program, the New York premiere of a Carnegie Hall/San Francisco Symphony co-commission. Adams incorporated snippets from Beethoven's late string quartets and symphonies throughout, quoting them outright and transforming them into the energetic, bouncy rhythms that characterize his style. Yet while it was entertaining to play “name that tune,” the work did not showcase Adams at his best. For almost the entire piece, the soloists and various sections of the orchestra traded off a frenzied melodic line, an irregular rhythm, and chordal harmony. The orchestra and the members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet put their backs into it, especially first violinist Geoff Nutall. The inspired ending, built on the Waldstein Sonata’s opening chord progression, brought the piece to a surging finish, capped by lingering cowbell clanks, as we all caught our breaths.

Edgard Varèse’s 1927 orchestral work Amériques boasts many touches of innovative orchestration. A 125-piece orchestra, including a heckelphone and contrabass trombone; the use of a siren; expansive writing for percussion that could have been a piece on its own. Yet Amériques also draws upon Varèse's most forward-thinking European contemporaries. The sensuous opening alto flute theme (which reappears in more sinister incarnations later) is reminiscent of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and the pentatonic themes which sounded out in thick brass chords recall early Bartók. All of these elements are clothed in the dense texture you would expect from an orchestra of this size, but where Adams gives us energy, Varèse offers variety. The episodic work gives the listener no roadmap, but the brash, constantly shifting sonorities make for a wild ride. MTT and the orchestra relished every detail of this “difficult” music, combining pinpoint clarity, brutal violence, and nearly-deafening volume all at once. It was a fitting end to one of the most memorable, intelligently programmed, and brilliantly played concerts of the season.