These are heady days for the West Coast classical music scene. The epicenter of American musical life shifted west this summer, an increasingly frequent occurrence. The most prominent orchestras and opera companies here, and in Los Angeles and Seattle, routinely present music with a vibrancy and, in many cases, a spirit of experimental energy that ensembles in the East too often lack. The cultural climate here encourages risk.

For many years, the San Francisco Symphony has ended its season with an early summer festival. Since 1996, after conductor Michael Tilson Thomas took over the orchestra, the festival has been capped with a special concert exploring what Thomas calls the 20th-century "maverick" tradition--works by iconoclast composers, past and present, who have avoided traditions, worked outside the system and, in doing so, developed powerfully original voices. By establishing a high-profile forum for the mavericks, Thomas has earned a reputation as leader of the West Coast vanguard.

The maverick concept is a potent and influential way of thinking about American musical history. We've never pretended to have a linear evolution in our music, and most of the better-known mavericks of the past--Henry Cowell, Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Harry Partch--have never been fashionable, certainly not in their own lifetimes.

Now they're central to music history. Their creations, often optimistic, survive more persuasively than almost any by the New World atonalists, those Americans who mimicked the angst-ridden attitudes developed by their colleagues from postwar Europe.

In the first of these maverick sessions, Thomas invited the surviving members of the Grateful Dead to jam with the orchestra onstage. (At least one member of the Dead, Bob Weir, has avant-garde cachet: He studied with Italian super-modernist composer Luciano Berio and has helped fund contemporary music concerts and recordings.) Davies Symphony Hall was packed. There was improvisatory mayhem onstage. Deadheads rejoiced and the orchestra found encouragement to program more adventurously.

Last April, the San Francisco orchestra and Michael Kamen, a film composer and arranger, collaborated with the Bay Area band Metallica for an earsplitting show of orchestrally augmented heavy metal. (The National Symphony Orchestra will premiere a Kamen work next January at the Kennedy Center.) In San Francisco, seemingly the most inclusive city in America, none of this comes as a surprise.

This summer the maverick concert accompanied a six-evening journey, peering into chapters from the career of Igor Stravinsky. Thomas and the orchestra explored episodes from the composer's Russian youth, his Parisian neoclassical years and his final American sojourn. They included just two works from the standard repertoire, "The Rite of Spring" and "Pulcinella," filling out the evenings with incisive performances of infrequently played masterpieces including the gorgeously jagged cantata "Les Noces," the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (with Peter Serkin as soloist) and the ballet "Agon." In "Soldier's Tale," a Faustian mini-drama, actor Patrick Stewart gamely took the speaking roles of the soldier, the Devil and the narrator. The audience was riveted.

Publicity brochures informed the audience that Thomas, who was raised in Los Angeles, had musical and personal links to Stravinsky, who, by the 1940s, had immigrated to Southern California. As an interpreter, Thomas elicits an uncanny feeling of music being taken apart and reassembled, highly lucid, often extremely urgent. Thomas's rapport with his players seems special: Mutual trust and respect are apparent.

A Tarnished 'Ring'

Meanwhile, this summer in San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House--directly across Grove Street from Davies Symphony Hall, the orchestra's home--the San Francisco Opera staged four complete cycles of Richard Wagner's monumental "Der Ring des Nibelungen."

This "Ring," in a production originally directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, was first seen in 1985 and was trotted out again in 1990. Now in its third iteration, it has been streamlined and shorn of any meaningful symbolism, and it looked shabby.

Andrei Serban, the replacement director, said he had never before seen a complete "Ring" in an opera house. What he created--or tinkered with--was dramatically unfocused, without overarching, unifying principles. He merely blocked the scenes and let the singers infuse their parts with whatever insights they arrived with.

This led to an unwelcome gap in the center of this "Ring": Jane Eaglen, perhaps the world's most sought-after heavyweight soprano, was singing four complete cycles as Brunnhilde--a coup for San Francisco--with a combination of purity, power and Italianate lyricism unequaled today. (Wagner wanted his singers to project in a bel canto style.)

But she had little psychological identification with the role. From her performance, you'd scarcely know that Brunnhilde is one of the most noble, endearing and tragically humiliated characters in all of opera. Eaglen wasn't acting at all; she sang the notes beautifully and moved about the stage at the assigned moments, her face and voice nearly blank in expression.

Rather than pursue an adventurous production relevant to the West Coast spirit, the company opted for a fusty, gormless show with high-priced singers. It played to sold-out audiences.

Across the bay to the east, the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and conductor Kent Nagano manage to combine counterculture chic with the healthy curiosity found in college towns toward the new and potentially jarring. Bolstered by an audience continually in search of a "happening," they've created adventurous programs that any Eastern metropolis should admire.

Berkeley was the first U.S. orchestra to present "Powder Her Face," the scandalous and heartily acclaimed chamber opera by the young British composer Thomas Ades, and it has given the only U.S. performance of Olivier Messiaen's opera "Saint Francois d'Assise." The orchestra's ongoing series called "Under Construction" explores music by local composers--vital in building a scene.

In June, Berkeley heard Philippe Manoury's opera "60th Parallel" in a concert performance, an event augmented over the weekend by performances of this emerging French composer's chamber works. Manoury's attractive music isn't known in the United States--a fine reason, by Berkeley's logic, to give it a listen.

Success in Seattle

The Seattle Opera scored a coup of its own last summer when it brought together for the first time Jane Eaglen and the powerful tenor Ben Heppner in Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." Here, finally, was the duo to claim the mantle left by those mythic Wagner singers from mid-century, Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior.

The frenzy for Seattle's "Tristan" tickets was itself an event much commented on. Reviews of the performances were mixed, focusing on either the beautiful singing or the shoddy acting, but Seattle's triumph over New York's Metropolitan Opera in bringing Eaglen and Heppner together first will long be savored.

Seattle's orchestral life is on a fast ascent since the opening of Benaroya Hall last September. The Seattle Symphony, under Music Director Gerard Schwarz, finally has its own home with fine acoustics (it formerly shared a cavernous theater with the Seattle Opera).

Schwarz's approach looks less toward the contemporary than toward the comforting and the traditional. He programs American music, but nothing as radical and jarring as Thomas does in San Francisco. Schwarz's interests lie more with the mid-century American symphonists--including David Diamond and Howard Hanson--and he has made many valuable recordings of their music.

Seattle's conservatism may be the inverse of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's modernism; perhaps they're equally spaced from the center. With its conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, a charismatic Finn, Los Angeles has been lauded as perhaps the most successful of all current partnerships among U.S. orchestras and conductors. And it is the only major American orchestra with a center of gravity on our side of 1900.

Brand-new works (Salonen himself is a composer of some stature) and 20th-century classics figure prominently in the programming, and the energetic Salonen delivers it all with a remarkable clarity (to his players) and admirable nonchalance (to his audience). He conducts as he programs, with the conviction that he knows he's right. This strategy seems to click--the chemistry is right--and there's a palpable sense of excitement and purpose at Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts.

A half century ago, Los Angeles had the makings of a much bigger scene. In the 1940s, the twin giants of 20th-century music, Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, moved there as refugees from Europe. Otto Klemperer, a star of Berlin's vibrant prewar opera world, conducted the Philharmonic. Celebrated composers and virtuoso instrumentalists congregated there in unprecedented numbers. Schoenberg--the most reviled composer in music, the father of modern atonality--loved to play tennis with George Gershwin, the smooth charmer, the under-educated songster.

It should have led to a cultural explosion, but the Zeitgeist wasn't right: In L.A., music was meant for movies. The opportunity evaporated. But now, it seems the entire West Coast is getting a second chance, and making the most of it.