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Two Views of the Empyrean

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
07/13/2011 -  
John Adams: Guide to Strange Places
Anton Bruckner: Symphony Number 5 in B-flat major

The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (Music Director and Conductor)

F. Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra (© Wikimedia Commons)

No matter how he tried it–interviews, essays, random quotes–no way could conductor Franz Welser-Möst prove an affinity between rambunctious, frisky, totally American John Adams and stern, symphonic, monumental, spiritual Anton Bruckner.

By pairing these two most unlikely composers together for the first three of his four concerts with the Cleveland Orchestra this week, he perhaps tried to challenge our sensibilities–which is a terrific idea–but after the first concert last night, one quickly forgot the musical oxymoron of Adams and Bruckner, and concentrated on the music. And on that basis, nobody had questions.

One expected Austrian. Welser-Möst and the mittleamerikan orchestra with the purely European upbringing to offer a monumental Bruckner. More surprising was the opening Adams Guide to Strange Places, conducted with relish and all the needed vitality by Mr. Welser-Möst , a man who obviously has an adoration for the composer. Not that everybody in the audience enjoys the composer. An eminent musician in the audience hissed to me after the performance, “I hate John Adams.” Which is like saying, “I hate cotton candy and 105-ring circuses”, or “I hate atomic particles jumping around in a cyclotron.”

Certainly, Guide to Strange Places (the title comes from a French guidebook) has its rhythmic frenzy, its Minimalist buzzing and shaking. But with the very intense Mr. Welser-Möst guiding the Cleveland Orchestra, it became incredibly intense at the same time. It danced, it growled, the frenzy slipped from the highest piccolo down to the lowest possible notes of a bass tuba, the rhythms paused, slowed, skipped onto quicker motifs, strings fluttered and brass made flatulent noises…until it stopped, as if the composer (or more likely, the orchestra) couldn’t go on.

The wonder was that such a European-trained and experienced conductor like Mr. Welser-Möst could take on the kind of music which few Europeans could essay. But he gave it everything he got, with clarity, unending control, and orchestral humor. The composer himself was on hand, and he obviously enjoyed the playing.

That humor is where we have some difficulties. Mr. Welser-Möst had told Time Out’s Steve Smith that, like John Adams, one could find “humor” in Anton Bruckner. I’m sorry. The false horn notes in the third movement of the Fifth Symphony are not humor. The speeding and slowing of the group themes does not bring forth images of Chaplin or Jon Stewart. Nor does one chuckle silently at the great chorales.

The music is, though, spacious, firm, pointed and certainly triumphal. John Adams buzzes and whirls, but one imagines millions of hamsters spinning around millions of instruments, giving us fun, but not going anywhere. Anton Bruckner knew where he was going. And if his footsteps were at times ponderous, they had a purpose.

Mr. Welser-Möst gave us that purpose. He was careful not to give away the triumph of the work in the first movement, but let it uncurl with that most beautiful first theme. His Adagio was anything but mournful, almost sunny. And the scherzo? No, the “joke” was not humorous, Mr. Welser-Möst took it with a languid easy pace, somewhere between a slow folk dance and an easy dialogue between members of the orchestra. Like all Bruckner, the last movement was a moment of victory, a series of the most complex fugues set amidst the most inspiring transformations of the chorale. Here, Mr. Welser-Möst never stinted, he didn’t push it forward, but allowed the volition of the music to create its own tempos.

Like John Adams, the music of Bruckner is inevitable. With Adams, we feel that he won’t allow us to get detracted from its velocity and wonder: it has good old American optimism.

Anton Bruckner feels not that same unclouded optimism. His music has questions, oblique logic, cloudy nuances. By the end, though, Mr. Welser-Möst showed on this first night, that while Adams sees a perfectly blue sky, Bruckner needs clouds, storms, hints of sunlight before his revelation of the Empyrean.

Harry Rolnick



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