There’s the first of several jokes I have cooking for the Bruckner festival happening within the Lincoln Center Festival. (Hint: it’s not a celebration of the highway.) It seems like a heavy choice for the summer, meatloaf in July, if you will. Would New Yorkers turn out for four concerts of a little-played late Romantic paired with works by John Adams?
As it happened, there was a respectable showing tonight–parterre and first balcony full, but the upper two balconies closed off by the management–as Franz Welser-Möst led the Cleveland Orchestra in Bruckner’s 5th Symphony and Adams’ Guide to Strange Places. The two composers are featured on all the concerts in attempt to illustrate the minimalist qualities of Bruckner and the Romantic overtones of Adams. I’m not quite convinced that the pairing works.
John Adams calls forth unexpected sonorities from the orchestra; I had to double check the program to see if there was a digeridoo in the mix. Adams’ minimalist web of repeated motives was always energetic, while in lesser hands the piece could have sounded tired from the very beginning. Guide to Strange Places – a name taken from a French guidebook to la Provence Mystérieuse – is a short narrative work whose structure is similar to watching a thunderstorm on a pond: the momentum is relentless, the focus travels from one patch to another, and even if it tapers to a drizzle, it’s still coming down. At one point a series of dry drum whacks sounding over struggling strings reminded listeners of the fraught emotions that must have been felt at its premiere, shortly after September 11, 2001.
The drive of Adams was a contrast to the universe of Bruckner, perhaps the best composer for suggesting space with sound. Since the 1950s, the grandiose and monumental aspects of his music have been played up by conductors like Karajan, Wand, and Haitink. They have departed from the more mercurial, volatile approach and shifting tempos of earlier conductors like Furtwängler, who infused the work with as much forward motion as cathedral height. Excerpt below.
In his version, you hear that Bruckner lived and listened in the same city as both the Strausses.
Nostalgia aside, Welser-Möst sticks with the straight pacing of the contemporary Bruckner style. He adds to this a new emphasis on clarity and transparency of sound, and a more steady forward momentum–faster than Haitink, Wand, or Karajan in this work, yet eschewing Furtwängler’s extreme flexibility, never dawdling over Bruckner’s pauses and transitions. He led with stylish pacing and the orchestra played like the sensitive organist that Bruckner was. Unlike in the Adams, which left little for the conductor to finesse, listeners and players palpably breathed with Welser-Möst. The winds – especially the first chairs – have the hottest seats in the orchestra, but during section solos they led with the teamwork of chamber players. Especially expressive were principal flutist Joshua Smith and principal oboist Frank Rosenwein. The brass also had a warmth and unity that went past rhythmic accuracy, perfectly balanced from top to bottom, and realizing the cliché that Bruckner made his orchestra sound like an organ. Makes you want to move to Cleveland.
Only a couple of things were missing. Much as I wanted to hit a switch to warm up Avery Fisher’s dry acoustic, I wanted to goose Welser-Möst’s intensity. Yes, he sped up when an accelerando was marked and climaxes were not just loud but full, but I missed a sense of urgency in the speed and a sense of drama behind the volume. As much as I could sense Joshua Smith’s musical intention when he took a breath before a phrase, I could feel a studied correctness to what should have been some of the more frenzied moments. Still, Welser-Möst can turn the orchestra on a dime, from quiet intensity to loud and proud.
By the end of the 75 minute symphony, the Adams work was but a distant memory. It seems a little inapt to put the two together – I think you’d find more minimalist tendencies in Beethoven, and maybe a more comparable sonic picture to Adams. Whereas Adams introduces a motive and develops it section by section, Bruckner introduces a gesture – long or short – connects it to something else, then another something else, then another, with orchestrations and themes changing in a flash. The motives create the form, weaving themselves throughout the entire work. Adams’ form shapes his motives, with one section demanding contrast from another.
Tomorrow brings the Adams Violin Concerto and Bruckner’s melodic 7th Symphony. Still unsure about this composer pairing. It’s not really beets and goat cheese. It’s beets and meatloaf.