Are Bruckner Symphonies Now the Proving Ground for Conductors?

Are Bruckner Symphonies Now the Proving Ground for Conductors?

If you’re an ambitious conductor and want to prove your mettle while showing off your orchestra as top-tier, what project should you take on?

Many would say Mahler symphonies, especially since the days when Leonard Bernstein championed these epic works at the New York Philharmonic and, through his impassioned commitment, made them central to the repertory worldwide.

But wait. Is Anton Bruckner, an earlier-generation Austrian composer who also wound up in Vienna, edging out Mahler as the symphonist with which to show your stuff? One might have thought so from recent programs presented in New York by two of today’s most dynamic and acclaimed younger conductors.

On Friday, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, 44, the music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra, brought the other ensemble he leads, the Orchestre Métropolitain of Montreal, to Carnegie Hall with a program featuring Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (“Romantic”). Then, on Sunday afternoon at David Geffen Hall, Gustavo Dudamel, 38, led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in, as it happens, the same symphony.

What gives? Maybe Mahler’s symphonies — music of extremes, from sublime tenderness to bitter anguish, from childlike evocations of country dancing to harrowing trips into darkness — are proving just a tad over the top. And, with conductors everywhere leading these scores so well, it’s hard for a performance to stand out.

Enter Bruckner. For all the lofty qualities of his searching symphonies, in a good performance the music comes across as speaking in a modest voice, and at a more deliberate pace; there is a spaciousness even in the faster movements of these works. A contemporary of Brahms, Bruckner had a visionary streak, as he attempted to reconcile the Romantic stirrings of his time with a respect for the protocols of classical form, while glimpsing the spiritual realms of the future. Still, these symphonies are sprawling; it’s difficult to make them not seem long-winded, aimless and even, as some feel, aloof.

Conductors seem increasingly up to the challenge. At Carnegie in 2017, Daniel Barenboim led the Staatskapelle Berlin in what was announced as the first complete survey in America of Bruckner’s nine symphonies. Mr. Nézet-Séguin, long a Bruckner devotee, has actually had less of a profile in Mahler. He recently completed a 10-year project to record a Bruckner cycle with his Montreal orchestra. And in June, he led the Met Orchestra in its first performance of a Bruckner symphony: the Seventh.

By choosing Bruckner’s Fourth for Friday’s program, the second in his Perspectives series at Carnegie, he seemed intent on making a strong artistic statement while also showing off this vibrant, youthful orchestra from his hometown.

He began with another Austrian composer, Mozart, offering excerpts from the opera “La Clemenza di Tito” — including two arias featuring the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, whose appearance was part her own Perspectives series . She gave radiant, dramatically nuanced and eloquent performances of Sesto’s “Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio” and Vitellia’s “Non più di fiori” (adding “Voi che sapete” from “Le Nozze di Figaro” as an encore).

Mr. Nézet-Séguin’s account of the Bruckner stood out for the lighter textures and transparency he drew from the orchestra, the judiciously balanced sonorities and the quicksilver shifts of mood. The slow movement, thought to be a funeral march, here had more of a wistfully Schubertian quality, music that was steady and solemn, yet content and hopeful. His conducting proved especially strong at bringing a sense of direction and thrust to the long finale, which is like a summation that can often seem wayward.

A weightier, feistier Bruckner’s Fourth was on display on Sunday in Mr. Dudamel’s account with the Los Angeles players. Though he has not been identified with Bruckner, he has made Mahler a specialty, including leading a complete cycle of the symphonies in Los Angeles, For this program, “Cathedral of Sound,” part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, he chose Bruckner’s Fourth as music steeped in spirituality, the festival’s running theme.

Digging in to convey gravitas, Mr. Dudamel led a teeming, even Mahlerian performance. After composing the piece, Bruckner suggested a scenario for the first movement that is hard to take at face value — about gates opening to a medieval city, knights on horses, woodland magic and such. Still, you could imagine that scenario while listening to Mr. Dudamel’s tumultuous, colorful performance.

Yet, in his enthusiasm, he may have pushed too hard. One slow and steady buildup followed another. The orchestra’s sound, especially in the brasses, turned raw and blaring. How many moments of climax can a single symphony have?

On Monday, Mr. Dudamel and his players were back, and in their element for a thrilling program of works by Ginastera, John Adams and Stravinsky. Yuja Wang was soloist for the New York premiere of Mr. Adams’s piano concerto “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?,” which she and the orchestra introduced earlier this year in Los Angeles.

Though written in three sections, this 28-minute piece unfolds almost uninterrupted and with continuous, percolating inventiveness. Mr. Adams is rarely enigmatic; this concerto seems an exception. Episodes have the impish glee of honky-tonk with a curious demonic edge.

The first movement, marked “Gritty, funky,” came off here as both sassy and dangerous. The middle movement was mesmerizing, with pointillist-like strands of mingling piano lines against bittersweet orchestra harmonies. Then the devil makes his presence known in the obsessive, ever-shifting and fiendishly appealing finale. Ms. Wang played magnificently (though I could have done without the five solo encores she played, including unabashedly virtuosic showpieces like “Flight of the Bumblebee”).

Mr. Dudamel and his orchestra gave a blazing and terrifying, yet inexorably paced and at times ravishing account of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” This used be the go-to work for conductors and orchestras to prove themselves. But today even conservatory orchestras can play the score solidly, if not as commandingly as this impressive ensemble did. Who would have thought that Bruckner would become more of a proving ground?

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