For this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival, Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra are giving us Bruckner, pairing the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies with works by John Adams. Lincoln Center is calling this “Bruckner-(Re)volution,” and it’s been a hard sell. Festival director Nigel Redden says that ticket sales have been a “slog,” and tickets remain unusually cheap—emails for Groupon offers and 50% off deals have been floating through my inbox.
This isn’t for lack of trying–the Festival has posted some intriguing videos on YouTube with Welser-Möst and Adams, presenting Bruckner as a kind of proto-Minimalist with the same emotional breadth and depth found in Mahler. Examples are here, here, and here. There’s just one problem: hardly anyone is looking at them.
Most people don’t know about Bruckner, and many who do find him long, loud, and boring. Many musician friends of ours share this opinion–even those who have played his music. Never mind the fact that most New Yorkers associate the name “Bruckner” with one of the most traffic-clogged stretches of highway girding this city of bad roads.
We obviously don’t find Bruckner long, loud, and boring–we’re going to all the concerts–but we’ve been thinking about how to make the case for him in today’s climate.
Bruckner’s champions are likely inspired by the long struggle on behalf of Mahler. But the (popular) craze for Mahler (in America, not Europe) finally took off at a time when classical music occupied a more central place in our cultural life–when Mahler would show up in movie soundtracks and even stray references in a script, and when an advocate like Bernstein could insist that Mahler was as important as Beckett, Sartre, or Freud for understanding the modern world. That message went beyond the coterie of classical music fanatics.
Now, with orchestras filing for bankruptcy and opera companies fleeing their theaters, a case needs to be made for Beethoven, never mind Bruckner. And many say that the path to rebirth lies in downsizing institutions, modernizing the repertory, and adopting the styles of contemporary youth and online culture. Putting aside the merits of such claims, we wonder: how can the advocacy of some lesser-known nineteenth-century Teuton with an (undeserved) reputation for being boring, uninspired, and repetitive fit into these plans for the future?
Back in the classical recordings expansion of the 1990s, we were treated to multiple recordings of previously unheard early versions of the Bruckner symphonies (Inbal, then Tintner). But that time has gone. Now, will performing organizations be able to fill seats with Bruckner (or Berg, or Britten, or Buxtehude) when people haven’t heard of Bach? As classical music drops out of the cultural knowledge of even educated Americans, ensembles may decide that they should reserve their risk-taking ventures for new music–to rebut the idea that this is a dead art form–rather than promoting old esoterica. This might be the right result, but it would be totally different from the world we’ve known so far.
Given all this, Lincoln Center’s gamble with Bruckner is both a throwback to the good old days (attempting for Bruckner what was done for Mahler) and a model for the new, presenting a lesser-known canonical composer as a modernist by pairing him with one of the most well-known contemporary composers, highlighting the parallels, and promoting him using online media. As people who haven’t yet heard the Seventh or Eighth live—even though one of us absolutely adores this music—we’re profoundly grateful for this opportunity, and hope that it pays off for everyone. For Bruckner most of all.