On November 1st and 2nd, the MSO brings Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony to the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. For me, it feels like the first step in what has already been a long journey. I never encountered Anton Bruckner until undergraduate school in New York. Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony to be exact. It was intense dislike at first listen. Honestly, I couldn’t understand what was going on with the music and how such simple material could be expanded to such great lengths. It got worse the more I studied it. Simple phrases, little or no development of themes, and jolting shifts of harmony – it seemed so unnecessary. I have to wonder how long it would have taken for me to warm up to Bruckner if I hadn’t landed with the MSO and one of the great Bruckner conductors, Edo de Waart. I wanted desperately to understand and, hopefully, fall in love with Bruckner’s works and this was a golden opportunity. Over the past two seasons, I have been fortunate enough to work on three Bruckner Symphonies with maestro de Waart.
I encourage you to listen to the following video of de Waart discussing Bruckner (start at 2:43 in the video). http://www.nhkso.or.jp/en/library/videolibrary/index.php?v_id=3 You’ll get a general version of what I received from de Waart several times. His face just lights up when he talks about the music and he so clearly connects with every moment in these mammoth symphonies.
One of the things that stuck with me was one day when de Waart mused how great it would be to perform a Bruckner Symphony in a cathedral since that was where Bruckner improvised and composed at the organ. So when I was presented with the opportunity to program this concert in St. John’s, I realized that I could make that idea a reality here in Milwaukee.
Although de Waart has been a major influence in my growing appreciation of Bruckner’s music, a single memory will be most important to me as I approach Bruckner on my own. This summer, I had the opportunity to travel around Europe for the first time. It was an early Sunday morning when my overnight train arrived in Vienna. With nothing being open, I decided to get the full experience and attend a Catholic Mass at the famous St. Stephen’s Cathedral. With a full orchestra and chorus, I had a feeling this would be special. However, it was the organ that took my breath away. Bruckner’s entire musical background was as a church organist – improvising vast preludes and postludes to the services. Perhaps my lack of sleep had me in a trance, but as the thunderous instrument meandered from harmony to harmony, I imagined the great organist/composers like Bruckner, Saint-Saens, and Messiaen producing their great works from just such a experience. Suddenly, Bruckner’s sound world that de Waart had tried to explain to me in words made sense. The simplicity and directness of the music that had so unsettled me became a necessary expression of that experience. For any musician, it is a lifelong relationship with the great works in the repertoire, but sometimes finding that first step is the hardest and it feels great to be taking that step at last with one of the greatest symphonic composers.