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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Concert Review: First Shots Fired

Bruckner (r)Evolution Opens at the Lincoln Center Festival
Anton Bruckner. Portrait by Josef Büche.

Wednesday night at Lincoln Center saw the opening of Bruckner (r)Evolution, the four-night stand at Avery Fisher Hall featuring the Cleveland Orchestra. Cleveland music director Franz Welser-Möst led the program, which paired Bruckner's Fifth Symphony with Guide to Strange Places, a 20-minute orchestral roadmap by minimalist composer John Adams.

This unusual marriage is part of Mr. Welser-Möst's ambition behind the festival, to demonstrate the influence of Bruckner's unusual symphonic style and cement the Austrian composer as a predecessor of modernism. The humble Bruckner would have been suspicious of the idea, preferring his colossal achievements to stand for themselves as abstract works of art.

The Adams work opened, a dense, harmonically rich four-movement structure played as one on the model of Jean Sibelius' Seventh Symphony. Thick orchestral textures, chugging strings and the guttural honk of the contrabass clarinet combined to create eerie landscapes like the cinematic soundtrack to a recent William Gibson novel.

Like that author's recent trilogy of books, Mr. Adams' work exists in the long shadow of September 11th, and was seen as a kind of threnody for the victims of those terrorist attacks. However, the composer explained in the accompanying concert note that his piece was actually conceived before the attacks, and that it was inspired by an annotated map of Provence in France that provided information on the strange and weird history of that remarkable slice of countryside.

Bruckner's Fifth Symphony has labored under similar misconceptions. It was written at a fiscally difficult time in the composer's life, following the fiasco of his Third. That, and its descending main theme have earned it the nickname "Tragic." But this is a misnomer. The Fifth is like a great stretching bridge to some otherworldly dimension, its span held together by great piers of unison brass and guy-wired by a pizzicato theme that opens the first movement and comes to dominate the finale.

Under Mr. Welser-Möst, the Cleveland Orchestra led the audience on a leisurely tour of this remarkable structure. The brass played with stirring power. The strings gave warm voice to the long melodic lines of the opening movement's second theme and the most lyric pages of the Adagio. The woodwinds came to the fore in the scherzo, written as a pair of interlocking Austrian country dances and reflecting Bruckner's country roots.

The finale led to the most magnificent playing of the evening, a 20-minute movement in which the ideas from the previous three are recapitulated in sonata form and then made to run in place with a colossal double fugue. The effect is remarkably like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, minus the solo voices and the chorus.

Throughout, Bruckner's writing for the orchestra reflects his mastery of counterpoint and his decision to treat a full symphony orchestra as if it were a giant pipe organ. The Cleveland forces responded to this magnificent music with power, enthusiasm and an odd, awkward grace, making this concert a strong opening to this four-night festival.

Bruckner (r)Evolution continues tonight with the Adams Violin Concerto, paired with Bruckner's Symphony No. 7. Symphony No. 8 bows on Saturday, with the 9th at 2pm on Sunday. Watch this space for full and continuing coverage.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.