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Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013

MSO Performs Bruckner’s ‘Romantic’ Symphony

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Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) wouldn’t win any beauty contests, but his music did. Though ungainly in appearance, he was a man of noble soul and high poetic sensitivity. He was regarded as awkward and unsophisticated by many of his contemporaries, but when it came to music, he was a highly original genius. 

Some have a hard time getting into Bruckner on first hearing. Bruno Walter, the great conductor who most championed both Bruckner and Mahler during the first half of the 20th century, didn’t start out being appreciative. Only after a close encounter with his own mortality via double pneumonia did Walter get into the composer: “After this I understood Bruckner,” he said. “That was my door to him.” 

Despite his humble beginnings in rural Austria, Bruckner became one of the top organists in Europe and regularly played at the cathedral in Linz. Church organ sonorities influenced his musical approach and his large-scale symphonies have been called “cathedrals of sound.” They bear comparison to grand human-built edifices of spirituality just as much as to the grandeur of nature’s mountains and forests.

Bruckner completed his First Symphony when he was 42, yet his work took a long time to gain acceptance. Although Bruckner’s Third Symphony is deemed by many to be his artistic breakthrough, its 1877 Viennese premiere ended up a disaster. Due to the death of Johann von Herbeck, conducting fell upon Bruckner, who, at the time, was a barely competent orchestral director. Already unsympathetic, the audience gradually left the hall. Even the musicians snuck away after the performance when Bruckner had his back turned. Tears welled in the musician’s eyes. Only a few bravoing young music students remained, one of them being 17-year-old Gustav Mahler. 

Bruckner’s musical gods were Beethoven and Wagner. His expansive symphonies clearly take their formal inspiration from Beethoven’s late quartets and Ninth Symphony and their harmonic inspiration from the rich chromatic orchestration in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal. Due to this association with Wagner, Bruckner was the victim of scathing reviews from the influential Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick, who sided with the Brahmins in the feud with the Wagnerites. The animosity between these two contentious camps was so intense that they would attend each other’s concerts just so they could boo, as, for instance, happened at the premiere of Brahms’ Third Symphony. 

Bruckner did not actively participate in this musical melee, yet he became an innocent bystander caught in its crossfire. When he died in 1896, Brahms stood outside the church where the funeral took place and whispered sadly “It will be my turn soon enough,” and he did die the following year. How happy Bruckner might have been if he had known that the man whose four symphonies Hanslick had pit against Bruckner’s nine had come to pay his respects. 

Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony is one of his most popular works. Its 1887 performance by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was the first time one of his symphonies received an ovation. He was so overjoyed that he gave the conductor a coin as a tip and told him to buy himself a beer. Rather than regard it as a faux pas, the aristocratic Hans Richter ever after wore that coin on his watch chain. 

Bruckner’s life story is full of such anecdotes, but beyond the stories is the music itself, with its tremendous power and beauty. Like Mahler, he wrote vast scores that scaled the highest of highs and the deepest of depths. It’s hard to imagine Mahler having written what he did without Bruckner’s inspiring precedent. 

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will perform Bruckner’s Fourth this weekend. It begins with a hushed sonic equivalent of a mountain sunrise—one of the most spellbinding beginnings of a symphony ever written. Against tremolo strings, a solo French horn announces the noble opening theme. From this mesmerizing opening, to the slow movement’s delicate serenity to the finale’s glorious perorations, this approximately 66-minute symphony makes a good entry point into Bruckner’s special sound world. 

The concert will open with featured pianist Joseph Kalichstein’s performance of Mozart’s Concerto No. 22. After intermission, the MSO’s internationally renowned music director Edo de Waart will conduct Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4. Performances will be held Friday, Jan. 25 at 11:15 a.m. and Saturday, Jan. 26 at 8 p.m at Uihlein Hall of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts located at 929 N. Water St.