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Absolution Without Repentance

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
11/17/2011 -  & November 18, 19, 2011
Josef Haydn: Symphony Number 96 in D major (“Miracle”), Hob. I:96
Anton Bruckner: Symphony Number 7 in E Major (Edition L. Novak, 1954)

New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (Conductor)

B. Haitink (© Clive Barda)

When a virgin youngster some decades ago, I found Bruckner so tiresome that I would wait impatiently for his spirited third movements. That–and the magisterial conducting of Bernard Haitink last night–has unalterably changed.

Mr. Haitink at 82, has been away from New York for several decades, but such absences are inexcusable. Apparently Alan Gilbert persuaded him to return, another blue ribbon for the NY Phil conductor. Mr. Haitink has the energy and command of conductors half his age. From the first tremolandos of the strings and Philip Myers’ dark lovely horn call, Mr. Haitink led the New York Philharmonic into a Bruckner Seventh which was unashamedly emotional, personal and moving.

Two moments came very close to bringing tears to my eyes. About four minutes before the end of the first movement, the strings vibrated softly (each vibration resonating in Mr. Haitink’s most expressive hands), with the horns rising higher and higher. And in the Adagio, as the orchestra began its buildup over that organ-like chorale. This was the famous place where, as an homage, Bruckner put in his four Wagner tubas, but so personal did Mr. Haitink conduct, that I for one was simply too involved to notice these instruments or the questionable cymbal and triangle.

It was moving, yes. But hardly funereal. For this was a gorgeous melodic Bruckner, with reverence but not pathos, with prayer but not repentance.

So moving where these first movements that I almost resented having the hunting-trumpet-and-horn scherzo. That was quickly rectified by a fast finale, beginning with more tremolos, ending with a reprise of the first horn call, and the triumph of...well, perhaps the triumph of Grace and Absolution.

Mr. Haitink has the sureness, the experience, and above all, the manifestation of a pious, not pathetic Bruckner. With other conductors, one hears and appreciates those great climaxes. With Mr. Haitink, one feels them down to what (for lack of a better word) is the soul.

Avery Fisher Hall was not, alas, filled last night. But for any who fear Bruckner’s length (a little over an hour) or his solemn stature, this is the concert for a gratifying conversion.

S. Sylar (© Chris Lee)

The evening began (in case anyone remembered!) with Haydn’s so-called “Miracle” Symphony, based on some disproven apocrypha. The uncommonly elegant oboe solo by Sherry Sylar will be remembered, of course. But equally, the Philharmonic ensemble at its best at the end of the second movement. A trill by the oboe, joined–as if a fugue of trills–by the rest of the orchestra, one consort at a time.

Haydn’s obvious respect for the London musicians, and Mr. Haitink’s meticulous conducting of the New York Phil at its most skillful made that more miraculous than the specious cognomen of the piece.

CODA: Since my bus was diverted because of the Occupy Wall Street crowds, I had time to conjecture how eminent composers would have acted when seeing the protests of tens of thousands in action.

A few examples:

Beethoven would have immediately marched in front, waving a banner, but being so concerned with liberty, that he would take his own, oblivious to the voices around him, as always, marching to a different drummer.

Verdi would e-mail Boito asking for an allegorical libretto about the Children’s Crusade.

Haydn would ask Prinz Esterházy if he could join the march. Esterházy would humor him: “Okay, Joe, have your fun. But remember you have to be home to compose a cassation before dinner.”

Mozart would look at the marchers from a window, and when seeing a properly dressed young lady, would run downstairs, introduce himself with a bow, and write a sonata for her.

Wagner would stand and shout speeches of encouragement, until he saw them approaching his theater. Before they could disrupt a performance, he would set the dogs on them.

Mussorgsky would love to join them...er, right after finishing his third bottle of vodka.

Bach wouldn’t even know about it, being sequestered in his own organ loft, his own mind.

Webern (having a premonition that he would be killed by an American MP) would give himself entirely to the anti-military march. Being Webern, though, he would take five steps forward, three steps diagonal, and return in four steps. "It is impossible to say anything further," he would say.

And Berlioz? He was the only one with experience, arranging the Marseillaise in 1830, and conducting it during another protest for all Paris. He would arrange the Star Spangled Banner stand in front of the Brooklyn Bridge and lead all 20,000 Occupy Wall Streeters their drums, guitars and voices.

That, more than Pete Seeger and Joan Baez (bless them both) would actually change America.

Harry Rolnick



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