On the surface, Anton Bruckner's symphonies are deceptively simple: repeating motifs that build upon each other in atmospheric waves before exploding in brass-driven crescendos. But, in my experience, the best performances of these monumental symphonies have come not at the hands of fiery young conductors, but someone far more mature. In other words, someone who has spent a lifetime learning how to read between the notes.I heard Kurt Masur conduct Bruckner on several occasions while he was music director of the NY Phil in the 90's, including a Memorial Day concert of the 4th symphony at St. John the Divine that will forever live as one of the great musical experiences of my life. So, when I heard that Masur was back at the Phil this weekend to conduct Bruckner's 7th, I dropped everything and hopped up to Avery Fisher to hear it.
During the first half of last night's program, which featured a pitch-perfect performance of Beethoven's 1st, I was starting to doubt my decision after a cranky old patron loudly chastised me for "fidgeting," right in the middle of the 3rd movement. (I returned the favor by telling him to Shut Up.)
All that was forgotten after intermission. Conducting Bruckner's hour-long symphony without either a score or a baton, Masur exuded reverence on the podium: like some kind of shaman, he directed the orchestra with only the slightest of gestures, all genuine and deeply felt. Sitting in the 10th row (safely distant from Mr. Cranky Pants) I can't remember ever hearing the Phil sound better: the brass was clear and spot-on, the strings pristine (if somethwat lacking in emotion.) By the final few bars of the Finale, I was in a state of awe, laid waste by the overwhelming sounds pouring forth from the stage.
During the last of several curtain calls, Masur blew kisses to his old friends in the orchestra - all of whom still had obvious affection for him - then turned and gently waved goodbye at us before leaving the stage. I couldn't help but get choked up: I'm sure Masur didn't want to believe he was seeing us all for the last time, but at 82, he knows that might just be the case.
Events like these are signposts, reminders not only of the transporting power of music, but of what it is to be alive. Frankly, I don't know how anyone can get by without them. (More pics below.)