Although new works don't figure as prominently as they once did on San Francisco Symphony programs, the orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas still attends to the important business of introducing audiences to up-and-coming composers.
Wednesday evening at Davies Symphony Hall, the composer was Ted Hearne, whose "Dispatches," making its West Coast premiere, got this week's subscription concert off to an impressively audacious start. Repeat performances continue through Saturday.
Chicago-born, Southern California-based Hearne has been making headlines the last few seasons for a variety of new works. His oratorio, "The Source," set texts from Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and quotes from Chelsea Manning. It premiered last year at the BAM Next Wave Festival in Brooklyn.
"Dispatches" was co-commissioned as part of the New Voices project by the S.F. Symphony, Florida's New World Symphony (where Thomas is artistic director) and the music publisher Boosey and Hawkes. The 15-minute score explores the intersections of serious and popular music; electric guitar and bass augment the traditional orchestra, themes from soul ballads inspire melodic flights, and an extensive percussion array -- including brake drums, assorted gongs, mallet instruments, and kitchen knives -- add to the composer's distinctive sound world.
Under guest conductor Christian Reif, who conducted the score's world premiere in Miami earlier this year, "Dispatches" unfolded in five short movements. The first took off on a fragment from the Stevie Wonder song "If It's Magic," yielding alluring sonic textures and unexpected rhythmic shifts. Clanking percussion, plucked strings and short bursts from the brass characterized the second episode, Hearne's tribute to singer Erykah Badu.
The central movement introduced the heavily processed sound of guitar, feeding back with abandon and offset by a plaintive theme for cellos. Hearne bears down in the fourth movement, described by the composer as "a giant sound monster." Here, the sound recalled the mechanized world of 20th-century composer George Antheil. A kind of release arrived with the finale's gentle reverie, which guides "Dispatches" to its conclusion.
It's an engaging, inventive score, and Reif led the Symphony players in a precise, dynamic performance.