Performance Tuesday, March 27, 2012 | 8 PM

San Francisco Symphony

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
The San Francisco Symphony begins its American Mavericks residency at Carnegie Hall with a spectacular, ground-shaking ode to our country from the 1920s by a Frenchman who found creative sustenance right here in the Big Apple and the New York premiere of John Adams’s Absolute Jest.

Also on the program is music from John Cage’s enigmatic Song Books with Jessye Norman, Meredith Monk, and Joan La Barbara. Imagine video screens pulsing with images that reinforce action. Envision three houses with cut-away walls, revealing the three divas. They explore three Cage worlds: one of theater, one populated by avant-garde French composer Erik Satie and Dada icon Marcel Duchamp, and another of Cage's idol Henry David Thoreau. The action is directed by Yuval Sharon, who has staged productions with New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera, and many other companies. But no two performances are the same, for the singers act on the moment’s inspiration, guided by Cage’s prompts. “Leave the stage by going up (flying) or by going down through a trap door,” Cage directs in one number. “Return in the same way wearing an animal’s head.” “Breathe as though you had lost your voice.” Prepare for fractured settings from Thoreau: “Wasps are building summer squashes, saw a fish hawk, when I hear this both bushes and trees are thinly leaved.”


  • San Francisco Symphony
    Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director and Conductor
  • St. Lawrence String Quartet
    ·· Geoff Nuttall, Violin
    ·· Scott St. John, Violin
    ·· Lesley Robertson, Viola
    ·· Christopher Costanza, Cello
  • Joan La Barbara, Vocalist
  • Meredith Monk, Vocalist
  • Jessye Norman, Soprano
  • Jesse Stiles, Electronics
  • Yuval Sharon, Stage Director


  • CAGE Song Books
  • COWELL Synchrony
  • JOHN ADAMS Absolute Jest for String Quartet and Orchestra (NY Premiere, commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the San Francisco Symphony, with support from the Phyllis C. Wattis Fund for New Works of Music.)
  • VARÈSE Amériques


  • San Francisco Symphony

    The San Francisco Symphony (SFS), which celebrates its centennial this season, gave its first concerts in December 1911. Its music directors have included Henry Hadley, Alfred Hertz, Basil Cameron, Issay Dobrowen, Pierre Monteux, Enrique Jordá, Josef Krips, Seiji Ozawa, Edo de Waart, Herbert Blomstedt, and, since 1995, Michael Tilson Thomas. The SFS has won such recording awards as the Grand Prix du Disque (France), the Gramophone Award (Britain), and the Grammy Award. For RCA Red Seal, Mr. Tilson Thomas and the SFS have recorded music from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, two Copland collections, a Gershwin collection, Stravinsky ballets (Le sacre du printemps, The Firebird, and Perséphone), and Charles Ives: An American Journey. Their cycle of Mahler symphonies has received seven Grammys and is available on the symphony's own label, SFS Media. Some of the most important conductors of the past and recent years have been guests on the SFS podium, among them Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, and Sir Georg Solti, and the list of composers who have led the orchestra includes Stravinsky, Ravel, Copland, and John Adams. The SFS Youth Orchestra, founded in 1980, has become known around the world, as has the SFS Chorus, heard on recordings and on the soundtracks of such films as Amadeus and The Godfather: Part III. For two decades, the SFS Adventures in Music program has brought music to every child in grades 1 through 5 in San Francisco's public schools. SFS radio broadcasts, the first in the US to feature symphonic music when they began in 1926, today carry the orchestra's concerts across the country. In a multimedia program designed to make classical music accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds, the SFS has launched Keeping Score on PBS, DVD, radio, and at the website San Francisco Symphony recordings are available at

    Michael Tilson Thomas           

    Michael Tilson Thomas first conducted the San Francisco Symphony in 1974 and has been music director since 1995. A Los Angeles native, he studied with John Crown and Ingolf Dahl at the University of Southern California, becoming music director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra at age 19 and working with Stravinsky, Boulez, Stockhausen, and Copland at the famed Monday Evening Concerts. He was pianist and conductor for Piatigorsky and Heifetz master classes and, as a student of Friedelind Wagner, an assistant conductor at Bayreuth. In 1969, Mr. Tilson Thomas won the Koussevitzky Prize and was appointed assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He came to international recognition 10 days later, replacing music director William Steinberg in mid-concert at Lincoln Center. He went on to become the BSO's associate conductor, then principal guest conductor. He has also served as director of the Ojai Festival, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, a principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and principal conductor of the Great Woods Festival. He became principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1988 and now serves as principal guest conductor. For a decade he served as co-artistic director of Japan's Pacific Music Festival, which he and Leonard Bernstein inaugurated in 1990, and he continues as artistic director of the New World Symphony, which he founded in 1988. Michael Tilson Thomas's recordings have won numerous international awards, and his recorded repertory reflects interests arising from work as conductor, composer, and pianist. His television credits include the New York Philharmonic Young People's Concerts, and in 2004 he and the SFS launched Keeping Score on PBS. His compositions include From the Diary of Anne Frank, Shówa/Shoáh (commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing), Poems of Emily Dickinson, Urban Legend, Island Music, and Notturno. Among his honors are Columbia University's Ditson Award for services to American music and Musical America's 1995 Conductor of the Year award. He is a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres of France, was selected as Gramophone 2005 Artist of the Year, was named one of America's Best Leaders by U.S. News & World Report, has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2010 was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama.

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  • St. Lawrence String Quartet
    Geoff Nuttall, Violin
    Scott St. John, Violin
    Lesley Robertson, Viola
    Christopher Costanza, Cello

    The St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ) was established in 1989 in Canada. In 1992, the quartet won both the Banff International String Quartet Competition and Young Concert Artists International Auditions. Since 1998, the SLSQ has been ensemble-in-residence at Stanford University, and the quartet's members are visiting artists at the University of Toronto. SLSQ frequently performs new works and has active working relationships with composers
    R. Murray Schafer, Christos Hatzis, Ezequiel Viñao, Jonathan Berger, Ka Nin Chan, Roberto Sierra, and Mark Applebaum. John Adams wrote his String Quartet for the SLSQ, which premiered the piece in 2009. That same year, the SLSQ celebrated the 20th anniversary of its founding by commissioning five Canadian composers and performing their works across Canada. Last October, the quartet premiered Kohelet, a new work by Osvaldo Golijov. The piece (co-commissioned by Stanford Lively Arts and Carnegie Hall) builds on the success of the quartet's previous collaboration with Golijov, which culminated in the twice-Grammy-nominated SLSQ recording of the composer's Yiddishbbuk (EMI) in 2002. This season, the foursome performs across the US and Canada and returns to Australia. Violinists Geoff Nuttall and Scott St. John grew up in London, Ontario; Nuttall is a founding member, and St. John joined in 2006. The two alternate the role of first violin. Violist Lesley Robertson is a founding member and hails from Edmonton, Alberta. Cellist Christopher Costanza is from Utica, New York, and joined the quartet in 2003. All four members teach at Stanford and live in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • Joan La Barbara

    Composer, performer, sound artist, and actor Joan La Barbara is renowned for her unique vocabulary of experimental and extended vocal techniques-multiphonics, circular singing, ululation, and glottal clicks-that have influenced generations of composers and singers. In 2008, the American Music Center conveyed its Letter of Distinction Award to Ms. La Barbara for her significant contributions to contemporary American music. Her awards and prizes include the Premio Internazionale "Demetrio Stratos"; a DAAD-Berlin artist residency; Civitella Ranieri, Guggenheim, and seven National Endowment for the Arts fellowships; and numerous commissions. Composing for multiple voices, chamber ensembles, theater, orchestra, interactive technology, and sound-scores for dance, video, and film, including a score for voice and electronics for Sesame Street, her multilayered textural compositions have been presented at the Brisbane Biennial, Festival d'automne à Paris, Warsaw Autumn, Frankfurt Feste, Metamusik-Berlin, Olympics Arts, and Lincoln Center. She was artistic director of the multi-year Carnegie Hall series When Morty Met John and of the New Music America festival in Los Angeles, and co-founded the performing composers-collective Ne(x)tworks. She has produced and performed on acclaimed recordings of music by John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown, and premiered landmark compositions written for her by Robert Ashley, David Behrman, Cage, Feldman, Philip Glass, Alvin Lucier, Steve Reich, Morton Subotnick, and James Tenney. Recordings of her work include ShamanSong (New World), Sound Paintings, and Voice Is the Original Instrument (Lovely Music). 73 Poems, her collaboration with text artist Kenneth Goldsmith, was included in The American Century Part II: Soundworks at the Whitney Museum. The award-winning interactive media / performance work Messa di Voce premiered at ars electronica festival in Linz. Exploring ways of immersing the audience in her music, Ms. La Barbara recently placed musicians and actors throughout Greenwich House Music School for her music-theater piece Journeys and Observable Events, which allowed the audience to explore the building and unveiling of theatrical and sonic events. In March 2011, she seated musicians of the American Composers Orchestra around and among the audience in Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall for her sonic painting In solitude this fear is lived, inspired by Agnes Martin's minimalist drawings. Ms. La Barbara is developing a solo performance work, Storefront Diva, for pianist Kathleen Supové, and composing a new opera that explores the artistic process, interior dialogue, and sounds within the mind. Visit for more information.

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  • Meredith Monk

    Meredith Monk is a composer, singer, and creator of new opera and music-theater works. A pioneer in what is now called "extended vocal technique," she has been hailed as a "magician of the voice" and "one of America's coolest composers." Recently, Ms. Monk was named Musical America's Composer of the Year for 2012 and one of NPR's 50 Great Voices.

    In 1965, Ms. Monk began her innovative exploration of the voice as a multifaceted instrument, composing mostly solo pieces for unaccompanied voice, and voice and keyboard. In 1978, she formed Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble to further expand her musical textures and forms. In addition to numerous vocal works, music-theater works, and operas, Ms. Monk has created vital new repertoire for orchestra, chamber ensembles, and solo instruments, with commissions from Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony, Kronos Quartet, St. Louis Symphony, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Her music can also be heard in films by Jean-Luc Godard and the Coen Brothers, among others. Celebrated internationally, Ms. Monk's work has been presented by Lincoln Center Festival, Houston Grand Opera, London's Barbican Centre, and at major venues in countries from Brazil to Syria.

    Meredith Monk's numerous honors include a MacArthur "Genius" Award, two Guggenheim fellowships, an American Music Center Letter of Distinction, an ASCAP Concert Music Award, a Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award for the Arts, and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She also holds honorary Doctor of Arts degrees from Bard College, the University of the Arts, The Juilliard School, the San Francisco Art Institute, and the Boston Conservatory. Ms. Monk has made more than a dozen recordings, mostly for the ECM New Series label, including the 2008 Grammy-nominated impermanence and Songs of Ascension, which wasnamed the No. 1 new-music release of 2011 by WNYC's New Sounds, hosted by John Schaefer. Ms. Monk's 40th year of performing and creating new music was celebrated in 2005 with a four-hour marathon at Zankel Hall, including performances by Björk, Bang on a Can All-Stars, DJ Spooky, John Zorn, and Alarm Will Sound. She is currently developing a new music-theater work, On Behalf of Nature, premiering in 2013. 

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  • Jessye Norman

    Jessye Norman performs a breadth and depth of repertory that encompasses her innovative programming and scholarship. She is as admired and respected for her artistry presented on the world's opera and concert stages-and now into her newest expansion into jazz-as for her humanitarian contributions. Her collaborations with today's most exciting and creative artists include her work with four-time Grammy-winning composer Laura Karpman, resulting in a multimedia music-theater piece, Ask Your Mama!, based on texts by Langston Hughes, which premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2009 as a part of the Honor! festival, a celebration of the African American contribution to world culture, curated and directed by Miss Norman. Ask Your Mama! was also presented at the Hollywood Bowl. The Jessye Norman School for the Arts in Miss Norman's hometown of Augusta, Georgia, is a tuition-free arts program for talented middle-school students otherwise unable to experience private arts tutoring. The school, in its ninth year, is Miss Norman's response to the understanding that, given the opportunity to explore the arts, students introduced to this positive means of self-expression perform better academically and become more involved citizens. Visit to find out more. Miss Norman's latest recording, Roots: My Life, My Song, shares with listeners part of her personal universe; in it she pays homage to some of the many who encourage her curiosity and what she feels is an obligation to offer musical expression outside the Classical canon, to reach all those open to taking this often surprising musical journey with her. Her work with not-for-profit organizations, including The New York Public Library, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Howard University, Carnegie Hall, and The Partnership for the Homeless speaks to her concern for the larger community and the citizenship she credits her parents for demonstrating through their own community service. Among Miss Norman's many recognitions, she is a Kennedy Center honoree, a National Medal of Arts awardee from President Obama, a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, and an officer in the French Legion of Honor. With five Grammys and almost 40 honorary doctorates, it is yet the sheer joy of singing that keeps her searching, exploring, and seeking to honor the ancestors.

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  • Jesse Stiles (Electronics) is a new-media artist, musician, and designer of electronic systems. In 2000, he was awarded a Watson Fellowship, which culminated in his album Watson Songs. His most recent release is The Target Museum. In 2010, Mr. Stiles was hired as sound engineer and music coordinator for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Mr. Stiles holds a BA in cognitive science from Vassar College and an MFA in integrated electronic arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He maintains studios in New York City and throughout New York State.
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  • Yuval Sharon (Director) has directed productions at the San Francisco Opera, the Mariinsky Theater, the Bregenzer Festspiele in Austria, and the Komische Oper Berlin, as well as at venues such as Berkeley Opera, (Le) Poisson Rouge, and the Deitch Projects. He was assistant director to Achim Freyer for Los Angeles Opera's Ring cycle and for four years was project director of New York City Opera's VOX. Mr. Sharon is now artistic director of The Industry, an initiative for new opera and interdisciplinary performance in Los Angeles that will give its inaugural production, Anne LeBaron's Crescent City,in May.
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Varèse's Amériques
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Riccardo Chailly, Conductor
Deutsche Grammophon

At a Glance


JOHN CAGE  Song Books

During his lifetime, John Cage strove to eliminate subjectivityin composition and to break down the barriers between life and art.To him, all sounds were music. In Cage's Song Books,composed in 1970, interpreters are allowed complete freedom intheir choice of material. Michael Tilson Thomas has described thesongs as "basically a kind of kit from which the performer can comeup with songs, speeches, actions, performances on otherinstruments, which all add up together to create a musicalevent."


Cowell grew up in San Francisco and absorbed all influences,from Eastern to American folk to European classical. He inventedthe "tone cluster," in which a piano is played not just by fingers,but by forearms and fists. Suggestions of this technique can beheard in Synchrony, which was originally intended for acollaboration with Martha Graham that never took place.

JOHN ADAMS  Absolute Jest

John Adams served as the San Francisco Symphony's firstcomposer-in-residence, a post he held from 1982 to 1985; today heis among the world's highest-profile composers. In AbsoluteJest, Adams explores his affinity for Beethoven, using brief,isolated, and originally unrelated fragments as building blocks toconstruct a single movement of large proportions-recombining andtransferring Beethovenian musical DNA to create something withdistinctively new properties.


Varèse arrived in the United States in 1915 and poured hisenergies into the cause of new music, founding the InternationalComposers Guild and organizing performances of works by suchcomposers as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ruggles, and Cowell. Varèse'sworks are like sonic sculptures: Sirens scream, huge blocks ofnoise collide, rhythms cross and crisscross. Amériquesrequires such gigantic forces that performances remain rare. Thoughsome listeners latched on to the sound of the siren and decidedthat Amériques depicted the bustling city of the newAmerica, Varèse objected to any such interpretation, protestingthat the name was to be understood as "symbolic of discoveries-newworlds on earth, in the sky, or in the minds of men."

Program Notes



Michael Tilson Thomas, Jessye Norman and Joan La Barbara on John Cage's Song Books


John Adams on Absolute Jest

Presented by Carnegie Hall in partnership with the San Francisco Symphony.
The National Endowment for the Arts is the lead donor of American Mavericks at Carnegie Hall.

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