Credit where due: Tilson Thomas has led his orchestra on some interesting and important excursions into areas where few others care to venture. His program two weeks ago also included three American works. One was a rightly admired classic, Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, with James Agee's words beautifully sung by Heidi Grant Murphy as a last-minute substitute for Sylvia McNair. The others were novelties very much worthwhile: Charles Ives' amazing From the Steeples and the Mountains, a venture into dissonance and clangor scored for nothing but brass and bells, and Henry Cowell's Music 1957, an extended work for huge orchestra (including anvils and tom-toms), an extraordinary if at times exasperating interweaving of great tangles of complex rhythms with folksy tunes of almost embarrassing innocence.
Cowell grew up in the Bay Area, antagonized his first audiences there while still in his teens, served time in San Quentin on a trumped-up perversion charge that today would probably get him elected mayor, and - even when later living in New York - composed music as innately Californian as any resident or visitor before his time or since. Since taking on the San Francisco post, Tilson Thomas has labored nobly to restore the Cowell legacy, which is copious and uneven; among his many other good deeds, this alone would be enough to assure his ticket to heaven.