BWW Review: GUSTAVO DUDAMEL AND THE LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC PLAY BRUCKNER at Geffen Hall At Lincoln Center
Never underestimate a shy musician.
No one knows what is going on underneath the modest exterior. Such was the case of Austrian-born Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). A man whose personal credo seems to have been "say little but do much," Bruckner managed to overcome a difficult early life with a huge amount of perseverance, not to mention musical talent. He became an expert organist and choral director, channeling his rich interior life, a life of passionate devotion to God (if not people), into his remarkable choral compositions and eleven symphonies. Like a number of other nineteenth century composers whose Muse did not come to them until middle age, Bruckner's compositional phase did not begin until he was nearly forty years old, and he did not find great appreciation outside musical circles until some twenty years later. He was fortunate to have experienced this approbation during his lifetime, however delayed.
On Sunday afternoon November 24th, the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of the effervescent Gustavo Dudamel performed Bruckner's Symphony No.4 in E flat major, subtitled "The Romantic," (the 1878-80 version) at David Geffen Hall as part of the tenth anniversary celebration of the White Light Festival. This 70 minute piece was the sole work on the program. There are few compositions that could precede or follow such a multi-dimensional musical experience, and with Dudamel's insightful direction the Philharmonic musicians dove into it with excitement, energy, and enthusiasm. The fact that the Maestro had committed the score to memory created a direct, visceral musical experience for the musicians and the audience.
Most symphonic music is abstract in nature, rarely telling a musical story. A notable exception to this is the 6th Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, known as "Pastorale." Beethoven himself had a story in mind as one can see in the score, but it is not fully fleshed out and much is left to the listener's imagination. Bruckner definitely had a story, or program, for his symphony. He imagined a complete world of knights in shining armor performing bold feats of courage and chivalry, not to mention hunting for the fun of it. Each movement of the symphony conveys part of the story. Most of the nineteenth century in art, music, and literature is known as the Romantic period, not necessarily about the love between people but more about "wearing one's heart on one's sleeve." Emotional experiences of every kind were what counted and what composers such as Schumann and Wagner (both of whom were heroes to Bruckner) exploited to the maximum degree. In naming his fourth symphony "The Romantic," Bruckner was not only telling a specific story but also telling it in an idealized manner. The third movement, "Scherzo" is a great example of this. The Philharmonic tore into this most famous section of the piece, one which features the fabulous brass section of this orchestra. They played at Dudamel's breath-taking pace until the Trio section. Suddenly all was delicacy and refinement. In Bruckner's program, the knights are being entertained during their evening repast in the forest. The momentary respite from their day of hunting features a gentle Ländler (an Austrian folk dance), seemingly out of place yet which works in context. The musicians made seamless transitions between strength and grace, responding instantly to Dudamel's unambiguous, easily followed direction. The Finale was bursting with joy, titanic fortissimos, and had the audience on its feet before Dudamel had fully brought his arm down signaling the end of the piece.
This was a thrilling, dynamically nuanced performance by the world-class Los Angeles Philharmonic. The brass section is not only featured in the Scherzo movement but actually throughout the piece. Bruckner's most popular and high spirited symphony received the performance it deserved, one to always be remembered.
Bruckner, a reserved, quiet composer of the Romantic period had earthquakes and volcanoes of emotion inside him, made plain in his fourth major symphony. This was one shy musician whose music should never be underestimated!