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Eating Greens at the Symphony

Terez Mertes

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Published: November 14, 2013 at 10:22 PM [UTC]

The San Francisco Symphony is on tour this week, with a program that intersperses old with new, classic with eclectic. The winner of the most eclectic title of the night would go, of course, to Steven Mackay’s Eating Greens, a piece originally commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1994. It is not, however, as the title seems to allude, the aural equivalent of eating greens. It’s more like going to one of those yogurt places, the top-it-off-with-every-sweet-thing-your-palate-craves kind, where imagination is the limit for what one cup can contain. Take note, for starters, of what the score of Eating Greens calls for:

Three flutes and two piccolos, three oboes and English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, and contrabass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, tenor and baritone saxophones, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, piano, celesta, harmonium, strings, and a percussion battery consisting of marimba, snare drum, bongo drums, bass drum, tam-tam, crash cymbals, sizzle cymbals, suspended cymbals, triangle, wind chimes, harmonica, vibraphone, xylophone, tambourine, cow bell, sand block, glockenspiel, nipple gong, temple block, log drum, mounted castanets, ratchet, bell tree, chimes, tom-tom, guiro, wood block, claves, maracas, flexatone, lion’s roar, hi-hat cymbals, glass bottles, glass jars, prayer stones, referee’s whistle, cardboard party horn, and boom box. The third flute and third oboe are asked to tune their instruments a quarter-tone flat, and the concertmaster is instructed to have an extra violin within easy reach, with its G string tuned down an octave.

Frightening, huh? And yet, I loved it, all 18 minutes of it. It was a cabaret, a carnival. Two carnivals, side by side. It was, in turns, melodic and dissonant, thoughtful and hilarious. The music swaggered. It strutted. It trumpeted its individualism. But it spoke, with heart, about pathos, as well, and the jumble of chaos and hope and despair and too much and too little that defines the human condition. I sat there listening during one particularly tumultuous swell of sound and dissonance, and thought, “Well, there, that’s my life right now. And how weirdly beautiful it is.”

Last night (Wed, Nov 13th) the SFS performed this program in Carnegie Hall and was broadcast as part of the “Carnegie Hall Live” radio series, as well as other classical stations around the country. Anyone catch it? The program will repeat on Friday, Nov 15th, as MTT and the Symphony make their way to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

I’d love to hear comments from others who have seen/heard this. Did you enjoy it? Too weird? Trying too hard to be subversive? The trio of patrons behind me at Davies Hall did not like it. They thought it was just noise. In the media, critics have dismissed it as being gimmicky, while others call it “crazy” and “entertaining in its own way,” leaving it up to the reader to decide if these are compliments or insults.

I blogged about Eating Greens and the rest of the SFS's Sunday afternoon program over at The Classical Girl. Here’s the link if you’re still hungry for something more to chew on: www.theclassicalgirl.com/eating greens


From 171.161.160.10
Posted on November 15, 2013 at 1:30 PM
Hi! I haven't heard Eating Greens, but I think Steven Mackey is great. Last year, my daughter played his piece Physical Property with her quartet (and electric guitar), so I got to hear it a bunch of times (Kronos and Brentano have recorded it). I liked it that first time, but it really continued to grow on me each time I heard it. From your description, it seems to be a kindred piece, a wild journey with wildly different moods forcing themselves through at times -- sometimes beautiful, sometimes dissonant, pretty, or all three at the same time-- and tremendous propulsive energy throughout. I'll keep my eyes out for an opportunity to hear Eating Greens. Sounds fun.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 15, 2013 at 4:58 PM
Ooh, loved your comments, and now I have a second Steven Mackey composition to be on the lookout (hear-out?!) for. Enjoyed your description of your impressions!

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