Nico Muhly's Dark Sisters
Deer Tick at Webster Hall

Bernard Haitink and Bruckner

DSC04576With one or two rare exceptions, the symphonies of Anton Bruckner are best left to conductors in the twlight of their careers. These expansive creations, often lasting for an hour or more, are deceptively simple: slow, repeating motifs, variable crescendos and decrescendos, rhythmic percussion and piercing brass. But, they also embody a deep and profound aura that can only truly be conjured by someone who has stood in front of an orchestra for many decades.

Among the most memorable performances of Bruckner I've seen were Kurt Masur leading the 4th with the NY Phil on Memorial Day at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (he was 74 at the time), Wolfgang Sawallisch doing the 5th with Philadelphia in 2004 (he was 81), and Lorin Maazel conducting the 8th at Avery Fisher in 2008 (he was 78.) I had tickets to see Günter Wand - one of the most famous of all Bruckner interpreters, who wouldn't even touch the symphonies until he was in his 60's - lead the 9th in Berlin in 2002, but he unfortunately passed away less than three weeks before the performance, at the ripe old age of 90. 

Last week, it was Bernard Haitink's turn, leading the NY Phil in a performance of Bruckner's 7th. (The program began with Haydn's Symphony No. 96, which I didn't get to hear.) Haitink, now 82, was the music director of the Royal Concertgebouw for nearly three decades and has held similar posts in Dresden, Glyndebourne, and Covent Garden, alongside regular appearances with the Philharmonics of Vienna and Berlin, among others. He is, by any measure, one of the great conductors of our time.

Shockingly, last week's concerts were Haitink's first appearances with the NY Phil since 1978, when he was strangely panned by the critics. Give Alan Gilbert credit for persuading Haitink to return after more than three decades.

"I had very pleasant meetings with him," Haitink says of Gilbert, "and got the impression that he is a man who really cares for his musicians. That is very important, more so now than in the past." 

The 7th is simultaneously the most popular and least profound of Bruckner's late symphonies, all written during the last two decades of the 19th century. The lyrical, hour-long symphony is probably best known for its deeply moving Adagio, which Bruckner composed after having a premonition that his idol, Richard Wagner, was about to die: a vision which came to fruition less than a month later.

Unfortunately, in the performance I saw on Friday, Haitink's impressive command of the 7th's many intricacies couldn't save the Phil from an unending series of blunders, including shaky brass and reedy winds. Worst of all, the cymbal player, Kyle Zerna, completely botched the climactic cymbal crash during the Adagio, blasting it from here to eternity. C'mon, dude: you have one job to do, and you can't even get that right?

Fortunately Haitink - who stood throughout and looked at least a decade younger than his age - kept his cool. By the end, he had managed to extract a decent performance from the Phil, drawing out the fanfares in the finale without once losing momentum.

During the extended ovation, I couldn't help but feel a bit wistful, knowing there probably won't be many more opportunities to see Haitink here in New York. If there is a next time - and I really hope there is - I'd prefer to see him in front of an orchestra that's more familiar to him, and more reliable for the rest of us.

DSC04580More pics on the photo page.