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Concert Review: Revelation Calling

By Superconductor @ppelkonen

Bruckner's Ninth Brings Cleveland Residency to a Mystic Close

Concert Review: Revelation Calling

Anton Bruckner: Master of the Mystic Arts. He composed, too.

The final installment of Bruckner (r)Evolution, the Cleveland Orchestra's four-concert residency at the 2011 Lincoln Center Festival, paired Anton Bruckner's Ninth (and final) Symphony with the Doctor Atomic Symphony by contemporary minimalist composer John Adams. Franz Welser-Möst conducted. His intent: to show Bruckner's influence on modern music.
Although earlier concerts in this series have been successful in connecting the musicological dots between these two very different men, it was a stretch to see the link between these two symphonies. On the one hand, Mr. Adams uses chugging ostinatos to evoke the countdown to the first ("Trinity") atomic bomb test conducted by Robert Oppenheimer. On the other, Bruckner's vast, expansive movements are dedicated den Lieber Gott, (To the Dear Lord) and promise their own apocalyptic vision.
John Adams brought his opera Doctor Atomic to New York in 2008, presenting the work at the Metropolitan Opera under the baton of Alan Gilbert. The symphony boils down major thematic ideas from the opera into a tight 25 minutes--about the length of one symphonic movement from Bruckner's pen. The Cleveland forces played with taut aggression, bringing drive and power to Mr. Adams' trademark rhythms. The work's final section featured an eloquent setting of Dr. Oppenheimer's Act I aria, with the principal trumpet taking the place of the singing scientist.
Bruckner worked on his Ninth Symphony in his very last years, battling health problems and pausing to work on the extensive revisions of his Eighth. Thus, the Ninth was unfinished. The standard performing version isa three-movement torso: a majestic opening, a thunderous scherzo and the deep, profound Adagio. This is the last music Bruckner wrote, and the whole throbs with the composer's anguish, self-doubt and Catholic guilt. (The composer did make extensive sketches for a finale, and a Berlin Philharmonic concert next season at Carnegie Hall will offer a completed version under Sir Simon Rattle.)
The mysterious opening features hushed tremolos (a Bruckner trademark) and the announcement of a motto theme in the brass. The twist is this: this theme recapitulates repeatedly, expanding and revealing more of itself to the listener every time it comes back. Like a religious revelation, the true design is only apparent upon hearing the whole movement. It remains one of this composer's most innovative creations.
Bruckner was trying to express the infinite mystery of God through music. This was a goal throughout his career, but was never more explicitly stated than in this symphony. The Cleveland Orchestra played this first movement with profound respect, digging into the big, muscular melodies with the same skill that they've displayed throughout the festival.
The scherzo is also challenging. with the bucolic peasantry of earlier Bruckner dance movements pushed aside in favor of a darker, more spectral sound. This movement points the way forward to the great, grim orchestral jests of Mahler's symphonies, with its complex rhythms and use of dark tonalities. Under Mr. Welser-Möst, this was Bruckner at his heaviest and darkest. The orchestra lent appropriate weight to the music, and even the contrasting trio theme did not lighten the somber mood.
A slow hesitant string theme opens the final adagio, recalling the mystic third act of Wagner's Parsifal. The composer quotes that opera several times, but the references to Wagner (and to his own Seventh and Eighth Symphonies) serve as mere guideposts along a steep spiritual path. Eventually, the theme rises from static string chords to a mystic transcendent tremolo played by the violins and woodwinds. The thunderous entry of the brass is the final revelation: composer and listener's reward for diligent traversal of this dark spiritual path.
Mr. Welser-Möst and his Cleveland forces played this entire symphony with a deep reverence, marking out the road from spiritual chaos to ultimate understanding. The slow, and ultimately trymphant finale marked not just the successful traversal over the rocky path of the Ninth Symphony, but the conclusion of a successful first residency as the new leading orchestral light of the Lincoln Center Festival. As the audience rose to its feet, one could only anticipate what composer, or combination of composers will be brought to Lincoln Center next year as this successful association continues.

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