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Monday, June 13, 2011

DVD Review: A Sneak Peek at the Apocalypse.

Franz Welser-Möst. Note the blue cufflinks.
Photo by Roger Mastrioanni © 2011 The Cleveland Orchestra.
Saturday night's free event at the Rubinstein Atrium offered a sneak peek at a major event from this year's Lincoln Center Festival: the first annual residency of the Cleveland Orchestra. The program featured a the screening of a new DVD of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, performed by the Orchestra under the baton of music director Franz Welser-Möst.

Anton Bruckner's fame rests on his cycle of symphonies: nine offical ones and two that the composer rejected. Bruckner symphonies massive works that require a veritable army of musicians to perform. The Eighth (nicknamed the 'Apocalyptic') is the last symphony that he completed, a gigantic work requiring a dozen horn players, an arsenal of woodwinds and a good-sized army of strings. Although it starts quietly, the work builds to a series of swelling, thunderous climaxes, and at the close of its fourth movement seems to rip through the vault of heaven to gaze upon the cosmic truths beyond.

Bruckner is a passion and a cause for this Austrian conductor, who was born and raised only a few miles away from the composer's hometown of Ansfelden, now a suburb of Linz. This July, Mr. Welser-Möst will bring that passion to Bruckner (r)Evolution, four concerts featuring major Bruckner symphonies (the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth and the unfinished Ninth) with compositions by American minimalist John Adams. By bringing these two composers together, Mr. Welser-Möst hopes to show that the composer is the godfather of the modern minimalist movement.

This DVD is remarkable for its close-up camera work, allowing the audience an unusual, intimate look at the orchestral members as well as Mr. Welser-Möst's intensity and focus on the podium . He conducts with his eyes as well as his hands, standing well back from the printed score and only flipping the page when needed. He works hard as he conducts, evidenced by the roll of sweat during the slow, superbly controlled third movement.

Want to see how a big orchestra works? This is your DVD. The oboes, bassoons, and more exotic instruments (like the Wagner tubas) are brought into sharp focus through careful, close camera work. The string players are not neglected, with special attention paid to the first violins and the double basses. The best shot is during the climax of the third movement, when the bell of the contrabass tuba catches the light of Severance Hall in an image that recalls Wagner's Rhine-gold glittering in the depths of the river.

The Cleveland Orchestra is one of the "Big Five", and occupies the smallest city of a major American orchestra. This performance was filmed in August, 2010 in their home venue of Severance Hall. The excellent audio engineering captures the phenomenal sound of the band in this great venue, and careful camera placement and editing ensures that the viewers never see the film crew.

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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.