That's what I find myself asking after four concerts last week by the Cleveland Orchestra in their debut appearance at the Lincoln Center Festival, where they have been engaged to return every-other-year for the foreseeable future. Lincoln Center is just the latest in a string of long-term associations the orchestra has developed over the past few years with everyone from Miami's Arsht Center, to the Lucerne Festival, to the Musikverein in Vienna. (They also appear annually at that other concert hall on 57th St.)
In fact, Cleveland has always been a cut above it's mid-market brethren. Founded in 1918, Cleveland is considered one of the "Big Five" orchestras in this country, along with the much larger markets of New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago (though some would argue whether all these still belong on that list.) Cleveland's rise can largely be attributed to the work of its early music directors Artur Rodziński (1933-1943), who gave the orchestra it's European sound, and George Szell (1946-1970), who fine tuned it with an iron fist. Szell also helped establish the orchestra's global reputation through hundreds of recordings issued during his long tenure.
I wasn't around during the Szell era, but Franz Welser-Möst, now entering his 10th season as music director, has quietly maintained this orchestra's virtuosity while giving it an even greater polish and refinement. Which is surprising, given his onetime reputation as a conductor of somewhat-uneven ability (one particularly snarky London critic once referred to him as "Frankly Worse-Than-Most.") And, much like the onetime Cleveland assistant conductor (and Szell disciple) James Levine did in Boston, Welser-Möst has expanded the orchestra's repertoire with healthy doses of contemporary music and opera, the latter gleaned from his concurrent role as General Music Director of the Vienna Staatsoper. (The Cleveland Orchestra's next two appearances at the Lincoln Center Festival will accompany fully staged performances by the Staatsoper.)
In September 2009, Welser-Möst announced his plans for the first Lincoln Center Festival series: "Bruckner (R)evolution," pairing symphonies by Anton Bruckner with works by John Adams - a bold, risky program that was initially turned down by more than a few other festivals. Welser-Möst claims that Bruckner is the "grandfather of minimalism" and swears that the moment he first heard Adams' Guide to Strange Places (2001), he immediately thought of Bruckner. Adams has been (wisely) more cautious in associating himself with the 19th century Austrian master, but has said that Bruckner's "command of large-scale musical form has had a huge influence on my own orchestral and operatic structures."
For Welser-Möst, who hails from the same region of Austria as Bruckner, this was also a highly personal project, intended to revive Bruckner's moribund reputation as a well-respected - if not loved - symphonist. "I grew up with Bruckner's music," Welser-Möst says in one of L.C's promo videos. "It's within my bones."
As the home of the NY Phil, I've grown accustomed to disappointment at Avery Fisher Hall: that forlorn barn of a concert hall that is as unappealing visually as it is aurally. It also didn't help that the entire 2nd and 3rd tiers were empty all week, as were numerous seats in the orchestra. As I mentioned earlier, Bruckner's always been a tough sell, and for all his recent successes at the Met and elsewehere, John Adams is far from a household name. Not to mention a lot of folks who might normally buy tickets for an event like this are away for the summer.
Still, I arrived at Wednesday's concert hopeful that Cleveland would shine through the hall's notoriously bad acoustics, as have other orchestras in the past. The program began with Adams' Guide to Strange Places, which I hadn't heard since its first U.S. performance at the Kennedy Center in 2002. Named for a local guidebook Adams' discovered while traveling in Provence with his family, it's a spiky, guttural piece that encompasses everything from Turangalila-like ecstatics to minimalist pulse and drone. Adams, who watched intently from a 2nd tier box, was gracious but a bit diffident during curtain calls, perhaps still a bit wary of his place in this series.
At the start of Bruckner's 5th, you could hear the telltale beep of stopwatches being set throughout the hall, the product of a strange subculture born from the eccentricities of conductors who've played fast and loose with Bruckner's tempi over the past century. Welser-Möst, among the youngest of today's leading Bruckner conductors, stuck more-or-less to the score, allowing Bruckner's expansive music to speak for itself.
The 5th features all of Bruckner's hallmark traits: huge tableaus, wildly-fluctuating dynamics, repeats that border on the obsessive. It is, at turns, light and dark, gentle and furious, humble and awesome. The orchestra played like a well-honed machine: clear, precise, in sync. Still, I had the nagging sense that, for all their solid playing, there was something missing in the soul department (partcularly in the plodding 3rd movement scherzo.)
By the time he composed the 5th, Bruckner had, like Beethoven, mastered the art of subterfuge, giving you fortissimo when you're expecting piano, or throwing in a false ending to keep you on the edge of your seat. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Finale: a huge double fugue with overlapping themes that resolves into the a titanic brass fanfare. But, just when you think you've reached the coda's final resolution, Bruckner reintroduces the main theme in a slower, grander tempo, the entire string section vacillating powerfully underneath. The effect is like getting stuck at the top of a roller coaster, being able to see for miles around before finally plunging to the bottom. Cleveland played it to devstating effect, leaving me literally shaking in my shoes.
The following night, I was back at Avery Fisher for Adams' Violin Concerto (1993); a strange, haunting piece full of spiky dissonances that starts out sounding more like Berg than Adams. The soloist, Leila Josefowicz, is an old hand at this concerto - I heard her play it with the American Composers Orchestra and Adams back at Carnegie in 2007 - and also enjoys a 20 year relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra, with whom she first performed when she was 13.
The Violin Concerto makes unusual demands on the soloist, who plays almost continuously thoughout. The first two movements were played without pause, giving Josefowicz just the slightest of breaks before launching into the frenetic Toccare, her entire body thrusting back and forth as she played. With its dramatic build to the final climax, the paralells between Adams and Bruckner were finally starting to reveal themselves.
Bruckner's 7th - premiered when he was 60 years old - was, remarkably, the first of his symphonies to achieve popular - if not critical - success. It's also the most bland of the late symphonies, full of long, expansive stretches where not much seems to happen. But, in the right hands, this symphony can soar: the opening Allegro, which starts in a primordial state and ends in a triumphant fanfare; the tender, elegiac Adagio written after the sudden death of Wagner; the playful, dancelike Scherzo; the Finale full of stops and starts that ends in a mass of sonorities rolling like waves over the audience.
Saturday night's concert was given over entirely to Bruckner's 8th, the last - and greatest - of his completed symphonies. (Adams, when asked by Welser-Möst what he'd like to pair with the 8th, wisely replied: "Nothing.") The 8th is orchestral writing on an entirely different level: beyond just its massive length of 90 minutes, it is dark, serious, almost sacred in nature. It is, at its base, a universe unto itself.
The last time I saw this symphony performed in 2008, Maazel and the NY Phil used the 1890 Nowak edition, which is by far the most commonly performed version. Welser-Möst, however, conducted Nowak's seldom-heard 1887 edition, as he feels that version is the most faithful to Bruckner's original intentions. Bruckner, for those who may not be aware, had a thin skin when it came to the critiques of conductors and fellow composers, and would revise his scores constantly to better accommodate their well-intentioned but ill-advised suggestions.
This new version took some getting used to. In the first movement, many of the dynamics were different, pulling way back on some of big brass crescendos. There were new repeats that morphed into entirely new sections that felt incongruous. And there were some new notes that just felt plain...off.
But, all of the key components were still intact, and before long I gave myself over to the symphony's all-encompassing sound world: its massive sonorities, its ebb and flow echoing the turn of the Earth. The Adagio, in particular, felt irrepressibly sad and tender, like the transmigration of a fallen hero. The heavens-shaking Finale was a showcase for the Cleveland brass and percussion, particularly timpanist Paul Yancich. Throughout, Welser-Möst's gestures were rigid yet emotive, his intensity burning just beneath the surface revealing just how much of himself he's invested in this music.
Sunday's matinee concert began with Adams' Doctor Atomic Symphony assembled from his opera of the same name about the Manhattan Project. It was the first I'd heard it since the NY premiere back in 2008, and Cleveland recaptured all that same menace and foreboding: the violence of the lightning storm, the anxiety of the countdown, the wrenching tenderness of Oppenheimer's aria "Batter My Heart, Three Person'd God," played here by principal trumpet Michael Sachs. During curtain calls, Adams seemed to have a shit-eating grin on his face, perhaps more confident that this recent representation of his output can stand comparison to his weighty forebear.
Speaking of God, Bruckner's 9th, which closed the program, was dedicated to "dem lieben Gott" (The Beloved God.) For over a century, many have claimed that this three-movement symphony represents an fitting final testament to Bruckner, the somber Adagio sounding a "final farewell" of sorts. But, the reality is that Bruckner made significant progress on a 4th and final movement, and that more than one scholar has struggled to complete its orchestration. The most recent - and, by reports, most successful - attempt is by Nicola Samale, Giuseppe Mazzuca, John A. Phillips and Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, which we'll be able to hear next season when Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic bring it to Carnegie.
Nevertheless, even without the fourth movement the 9th is a substantial work, clocking in at just over an hour. Having last heard it performed by the orchestra that gave it its premiere, the Vienna Philharmonic, I was prepared to cut Cleveland some slack for failing to reach that almost-impossibly high standard.
There was no need for concern. The string players looked like the spitting image of Vienna and Berlin with their astonishing energy and synchronicity, arms flying while their heads and bodies stayed perfectly still. The horns and trumpets were all pitch-perfect, both in the furious fanfares of the first and second movements and the greatly extended horn passages of the Adagio. The symphony ended with a fierce struggle: clashing dissonances that seem to signal a battle between life and death (presaging Bruckner's own fast-approaching demise), finally resolving into an ethereal, almost mystical conclusion.
During the multiple curtain calls, Welser-Möst showed for the first time the slightest hint of a smile, holding his hand over his heart in equal measures of gratitude and satisfaction. Welser-Möst may not be the most outgoing conductor on the planet, but after these four concerts, I can't think of anyone more serious, or with such an unerring sense of dedication. Count me as a fan.
In the end, these concerts were far more than an interesting experiment in cross-century musical juxtaposition. They were a reminder of the full potential of what's possible in a concert hall: the power and majesty of large-scale orchestral music, performed at the highest level of skill and devotion. No question Bruckner and Adams should get the lion's share of the credit, but for all those who call the "Mistake By the Lake" home you should know you've got one hell of an orchestra and music director. Thanks for sharing them with us.
More pics on the photo page.