Saturday, July 16, 2011

Guide to strange places

The great Cleveland Orchestra and their fine Austrian director Franz Welser-Möst have just completed a mini-festival of Bruckner at Lincoln Center, half of which I've had the delight of attending. The premise for this first New York Bruckner festival in many years is that Bruckner was a kind of minimalist, and in the first three concerts Bruckner symphonies were paired with works by John Adams. On Wednesday, I heard Adams' "Guide to Strange Places" (2001) and Bruckner's Fifth and was riveted by both.

Tonight it was only Bruckner, as the glorious Eighth was on the program (the sprawly 1887 original version). I really got the proto-minimalism - especially in the scherzo (whose brass refrains I decided were what the hosannas in heaven sound like, on and on, never the same, always resplendent) - and from there it was widening waves of marvel. How does this music work so powerfully? For the first third I fleetingly imagined other arts - opera, dance, film - which might complete or complement what I was hearing, but of course neither voice nor movement nor image was required. Then it was marveling that human beings - 2700 of us on a mid-July Saturday night in New York City! - could be moved by it: we're a profound species if you give us a chance. Cameo here for philosophical phenomenology, please, which makes its case most compellingly when you start with music and time.

And from there, wow. I lost track of time. (What's 92 minutes among friends?) I remember a French friend describing a trip to the Tuareg desert as worth three months of analysis (ça vaut trois mois de psychanalyse!), and this was like that - because, I think, of those elements of Bruckner's art which now seem prophetic of minimalism. Guided by the endlessly iterating and looping music (a flatfooted critic apparently called this symphony the Riesenschlange!), constant rediscovery in moods of tenderness and cloudy dissonance and ultimate triumph, I followed a string of images and feelings backwards and forward, which ultimately took me back to a boy - a preacher's son, can it be? - I met in a village in rural Bavaria when I was fourteen, who seemed the perfect friend. I wanted to live his life, a sort of 19th century life, with him. I've no idea any more what his name is (Thomas perhaps?) or if he's even alive. I have thought of him periodically, though, over the years - a life I might have had in a German fairy tale - but only tonight realized he was my first love. Funny where great music can take you...

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