Is America the New Frontier for Bruckner?
I was surprised to see that Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) is conducting Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony on the San Francisco Symphony’s current tour of Asia. During his long tenure as music director of the SFS, MTT has not conducted that much Anton Bruckner.
That makes sense since a key reason the SFS hired him in the first place was to get away from Bruckner and the more traditional Kapellmeister esthetics of Herbert Blomstedt, MTT’s immediate predecessor in San Francisco, in favor of more modern, contemporary and American music.
Yet Bruckner has been well served in San Francisco during MTT’s tenure since Blomstedt is a regular visitor and seldom fails to bring a Bruckner score with him.
But I wonder how appreciative San Francisco audiences really have been of Blomstedt’s powerful advocacy of Bruckner’s music over the years. Americans don’t get Bruckner’s music you know.
In Europe, Bruckner is on as high a level as Mahler. I was at the Lucerne Festival this summer and there were four major Bruckner symphonies featured: Bernard Haitink conducted the Eight, Daniele Gatti the Fourth, Blomstedt the Fifth and Daniel Barenboim the Sixth. It was a veritable Bruckner mini-festival and it’s like that almost every summer these days. The Europeans just can’t get enough of Bruckner.
How strange! Americans appreciate Beethoven as much as the Europeans do; the same goes for Mozart, Brahms, Schubert and so on. It’s only Bruckner that has failed to conquer the New World. Even top music critics here privately admit to not liking him. Personally, I know very few Bruckner fans in this country.
But things may be changing. The Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons plans to do at least one Bruckner every season. In January, Barenboim is coming with the Staatskapelle Berlin to Carnegie Hall to play a complete Bruckner cycle in nine evenings (from January 19th to the 29th).
That’s a lot of Bruckner and it takes much courage on Carnegie’s part to present all nine Bruckner symphonies in such a short time span.
When I heard the announcement, my first thought was: My God, how are they going to fill the seats. Innovative packaging, that’s how. Carnegie apparently hopes that by pairing Bruckner with a major Mozart piece each evening—including some Mozart piano concertos played and conducted by Barenboim—the crowds will come. We’ll see.
I actually heard Baremboim do his high-wire act in Luzern last summer where he played and conducted Mozart’s Piano Concerto KV 537, the so-called ‘Coronation’ concerto, and then after intermission conducted Bruckner’s Sixth. (The photo to the right was taken in Barenboim’s dressing room after the performance when the 89-year old Blomstedt, who attended, dropped by to visit).
It was a terrific performance and bodes extremely well for the Carnegie concerts. At sky high prices the huge KKL concert hall was full and enthusiastic. The Staatskapelle Berlin is one of those fantastic European orchestras you don’t hear much about in the United States even though it is one of Europe’s oldest. Barenboim started his association with the Berlin ensemble in 1992 and was named ‘Conductor for Life’ in 2000.
What stays with me from the Luzern concert was the unusual way Barenboim arranged the musicians on the podium with the basses strung out in the middle against the wall. The brass was placed on both flanks of the basses and the timpani off to the side.
That helped underscore the base line, which is so important to establish the forward momentum of Bruckner’s music, as well as take the edge off the brass, which in the wrong hands can be quite startling in Bruckner’s ever-forward journey towards the Heavenly Kingdom.
The Staatskapelle has a warm unified sound and did everything Barenboim asked of it. It was beautiful and polished Bruckner, not harsh and full of blare. The tempi were brisk as they should be on a Bruckner journey.
Yet Blomstedt’s performance of Bruckner’s Fifth symphony with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was the real knock out of the Bruckner mini-festival. Blomstedt is a deeply religious person and his Bruckner is inspired. The performance was met with tumultuous applause and an immediate standing ovation from a public that can be reluctant to stand even for the best.
The Swedish-American conductor who actually resides in Luzern is a true miracle—he is 89 and looks twenty years younger and conducts with a spirit and energy that’s hard to find in men half his age (take a look at the featured picture).
Everyone in the business is talking about him with awe, appreciation and love.
San Francisco wanted to get away from old fashioned—but old fashioned now seems to be winning the day. It may be time for Bruckner in America after all!