Adams Meets Bruckner

Classic Arts Features   Adams Meets Bruckner
The classical meets the contemporary this summer when The Cleveland Orchestra moves in for a weeklong residency at Lincoln Center Festival. Over the course of four concerts, the fabled Cleveland musicians will offer an extraordinary immersion in Bruckner, Bruckner, and more Bruckner.


On the bill are the the fifth, seventh, eighth, and ninth symphonies: led by music director Franz Welser-M‹st, who claims a deep affinity with the composer.

Under Welser-M‹st, The Cleveland Orchestra has emerged as a genuine champion of the expansive, deeply felt works of Anton Bruckner (1824 _1896) with a recent string of acclaimed performances and recordings. But it's not all Bruckner at Lincoln Center Festival. Sharing The Cleveland Orchestra's programs are works by John Adams. Bruckner and ... John Adams? The Pultizer-winning American composer (born in 1947) is probably best known for works with catchy post-modern titles like Short Ride in a Fast Machine and The Dharma at Big Sur, and for large-scale operas tackling landmark events of the twentieth century: Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic. What's this quintessential American composer doing on the same bill with the brooding avatar of German Romanticism?

To hear Adams and Welser-M‹st tell it, there are startling parallels between the two composers' works: a kind of ‹ber-minimalism on Bruckner's side, a deeply informed romanticism on Adams'.

So the residency offers a rare opportunity to hear vast amounts of Bruckner: a composer who never did anything by half measures: in a concentrated period. And it offers a sterling opportunity, equally rare, to hear a good chunk of Adams' work in a very different context.

Adams and Welser-M‹st first met several years ago on the West Coast, under fairly glam orous circumstances: the executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic introduced them when Welser-M‹st was working with that orchestra and Adams was in town to hear a performance of Philip Glass's Hydrogen Jukebox with Allen Ginsburg reciting his own poetry. Though admirers of each others' work, they had not met since that initial encounter: it took Lincoln Center Festival to get them together again.

ROBERT SANDLA: Had you known John Adams' music before you first met?

FRANZ WELSER-M‹ST: Coming from central Europe when I did, one didn't know much about contemporary American music. But right before we met, I discovered John's music, so I was excited to meet him. Since then, I've performed many of his pieces. The Chamber Symphony really got me interested in his music, and the other piece which really hit me was Guide to Strange Places. When I heard that piece for the first time, I immediately thought about Bruckner. I think they say a lot about each other.

SANDLA: How was the repertoire for Lincoln Center Festival selected?

WELSER-M‹ST: Over the last couple of years, The Cleveland Orchestra and I had a real go with the Bruckner symphonies: especially the later ones. Playing four big Bruckner symphonies within a couple of days is a huge undertaking for an orchestra. You have to plan it carefully. It was my idea to pair that with music by John. For me, the first choice was Guide to Strange Places. A year ago or so ago we had done John's Violin Concerto, which is also a wonderful piece, with Leila Josefowicz. And I love the Doctor Atomic Symphony, based on his opera. That's how it came about.

SANDLA: What are your feelings about Bruckner, and being in this side-by-side context?

JOHN ADAMS: One of the cognitive dissonances of being a composer these days is, if you're lucky enough to have a great orchestra and a great conductor program your music, chances are you are going to share a program with a really good piece of music. I've long been a fan of Bruckner. Probably one of the reasons is that I'm very much drawn to large-scale, formal architecture. I've never abandoned tonality in my composing. I use tonal centers to create very large landscapes. Some of my structures can take up to a half hour. And Bruckner, from a very early age, spoke to me. I remember being ten years old and having a recording of the Fourth Symphony, the "Romantic"symphony. Back in the days of LPs, you always had a beautiful picture for Bruckner. It was always a mountain: Caspar David Friedrich or some landscape. So the idea of landscape, and of distance and grandeur, was associated with Bruckner. But I still think it's always going to be difficult for me to be on programs with pieces that are such masterpieces.

SANDLA: What is the value of a deep dive into Adams' and Bruckner's work in a concentrated period?

WELSER-M‹ST: For the musicians, it will be a highly intense experience to play a lot of music by John and a lot of music by Anton Bruckner within a couple of days. It's physically and emotionally draining. For the audience, it's going to be quite a trip, because there is something hypnotic about John's music and Bruckner's music. For both composers, if you just look at the surface, you end up with a clich_. But if you look deeper, if you're open-minded and go deeper, you find so much more. When it comes to Bruckner, what I also want to show is Bruckner the modernist. Especially in his later work, you can hear that Alban Berg is around the corner. In many passages, Bruckner is ahead of his time. I've thought about Bruckner and John's music a great deal.

SANDLA: John, have you thought of your own works in larger historical terms as related to Bruckner?

ADAMS: All of my music is informed by the repertoire. There are wonderful avant-garde composers who cut themselves off from the past; the aggressiveness or the violence of that act feeds their imagination. Certainly that was the case, for example, with John Cage and the young Pierre Boulez. But I've always loved the great orchestral and European tradition. I consider it my patrimony. What's made me as a composer is the mixture of Beethoven and Stravinsky and Bart‹k and Bruckner, with my American genotype and jazz. Both my parents were amateur jazz musicians and I grew up during the flowering of rock. So, that's my musical DNA. I just can't go to the point of comparing my music to Bruckner's because I think his achievement is so sublime, and I would be a fool to even compare my music to his.

WELSER-M‹ST: You're too modest.

ADAMS: The creative process is so mysterious. I often liken the act of creativity to being caught in a dark room, and looking for the light switch. You know this idea is in there, but you just can't quite find it. And that brings up the interesting aspect of what it means to deliver a finished piece to a great artist. Because a great conductor, which I think Franz is, or a great soloist, like Leila Josefovicz, will illuminate something. And one of the most beautiful moments for me in life is when a performer reveals something in the music that I didn't know was there. That doesn't mean I like people fooling around with my tempi. [Both men laugh.] But there are ways of making things completely new.

WELSER-M‹ST: We have a philosophy at The Cleveland Orchestra: We play music because we believe in it. When we put together these programs, it was not, "Okay, let's do Bruckner: some audience members might like that. And we'll put some contemporary music there." For me, I have to be convinced it's good music. That is the first step: that I can do real service to the music, which is my job.


Robert Sandla is editor in chief of Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras.

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