The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Behold Bruckner! Conductor John DeMain explains the monumental beauty and major technical and interpretative challenges of Anton Bruckner, whose mammoth Seventh Symphony he will perform this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. | April 8, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend brings what, for The Ear, is the most interesting program of the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The combination of Baroque, Romantic and Late Romantic music includes the long-awaited performance of a major symphony—the Seventh—by Anton Bruckner (below).

Anton Bruckner 2

The program, to be performed under the baton of longtime MSO music director John DeMain, includes the Keyboard Concerto No. 4 by Johann Sebastian Bach and the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Franz Liszt. The soloist for both works is the dynamic and versatile Christopher Taylor (below), the resident virtuoso at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. Here is a link to an interview with him that appeared here earlier this week:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/04/06/classical-music-uw-madison-pianist-christopher-taylor-says-bach-wouldnt-mind-being-played-on-the-piano-and-the-public-should-get-to-know-the-less-virtuosic-side-of-liszt-he-plays-concertos/

Christopher Taylor new profile

Performances are in Overture Hall in the Overture Center. Times are Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $12-$84.

For details, go to https://www.madisonsymphony.org or call the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) recently agreed to do an email Q&A about Bruckner with The Ear:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Why has the MSO gone so long without playing a Bruckner symphony? Why did you choose the Symphony No. 7 as the first Bruckner symphony to be performed by the MSO during your tenure?

When I first came to Madison, I was so focused on Mahler that I didn’t think much about Bruckner. Doing so much Mahler in a short season of seven classical concerts, I felt that adding Bruckner to the mix was too much for our audiences from this period.

Now I can focus on other composers from the late Romantic period, most notably Anton Bruckner. The MSO performed Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (“Romantic”) in the mid-1980s. So I felt the Seventh would be the right symphony to perform after such a long hiatus, and one the audience would have enormous pleasure listening to.

Do you plan to program other Bruckner symphonies in future seasons? What is the next one you would like to conduct?

I’m certainly interested in a reload at the Fourth Symphony as well as the Eighth and Ninth in some future year.

What makes Bruckner great and how does his music differ from that of his contemporaries such as Gustav Mahler? What are his musical signatures?

Bruckner’s music is monumental in structure. The music basks in tonal beauty. His melodic lines are long, and he loves sequences, modulating as he goes along, building to temporary climaxes, until the big ones come along. The slow movement of the Seventh Symphony is achingly beautiful and moving.

At times, he sounds like Mahler (below), and why not? They were both writing at the same time, so musical trends are going to creep into the composers’ writing in any given era. The lilting waltz in the middle of the slow movement and the scherzo are two such examples that call to mind the music of Mahler.

For me, Mahler’s music struggles more, from the depths of human misery to the glories of newfound salvation. Bruckner doesn’t do that. His music is more architectural in its dramatic unfolding, relying on sequential melodic and harmonic tension, and powerful eruptions from the brass sections of the orchestra.

Gustav Mahler big

What are the major challenges, technical and interpretive, for you and the MSO players in doing Bruckner?

Bruckner is not as explicit as Mahler or Richard Strauss in his directions to the interpreter. Often a movement will have one, or, at the most, two or three general tempo indications. This leaves enormous leeway for the conductor to interpret Bruckner’s intentions. Listening to a variety of past performances by some of our greatest German and Austrian conductors of the past reveals enormous differences regarding tempo, consistency of tempo and general shaping. My influences will be more recent to reflect the scholarship and musical sensibilities of our time.

The challenge for the orchestra will primarily be endurance, particularly for the brass, as Bruckner the loves repetition during his big climaxes, literally embracing the audience with rapturous sound. Also, the strings are asked to play tremolo a lot, and that can be fatiguing. The effect, however, is wonderful. (Note: You can hear that for yourself in a YouTube video at the bottom that features an excerpt from the Scherzo movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 as performed by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.)

The biggest challenge for me will be the shaping of the symphony. Finding the right tempo, and knowing when to depart from it, so the music can breathe, are additional challenges, as well as paying strict attention to the long crescendos, diminuendos and sudden dynamic changes.

I can’t wait to get to work on it. Other aspects of orchestral playing are always present, like the intonation of the Wagner tubas that we will be using and strict adherence to dynamic changes that are bold, frequent and often extreme.

MSO-HALL

John DeMain conducting 2

What would you like the audience to pay special attention to in the symphony and your performance of it?

I think the audience should let the power and beauty of this symphony take them on their own personal journey. The Wagnerian and Mahlerian influences, as well as the Germanic nature of the music, should be immediately apparent to the listener and put them on familiar territory.

Is there anything else you would like to say about Bruckner?

I would just like to say to the audience, that if they haven’t had a chance to hear Bruckner live, or much at all, this is the perfect choice and chance to get closer to this major composer of 19th-century German Romanticism.

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2 Comments »

  1. I cannot wait until tonight! All of Bruckner’s and Mahler’s symphonies are in my musical library.
    Nina Sparks

    Comment by Nina Sparks — April 10, 2015 @ 2:55 pm

  2. I am a big fan of Bruckner’s symphonies, especially the Adagio of the 7th. I look forward to hearing it on Friday evening.

    Comment by Anders Yocom — April 8, 2015 @ 11:37 am


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