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Bruckner and Religion

For the second time in two weeks, I’ve heard an unforgettable symphonic performance fortified by intense religious conviction.
In Pittsburgh, Manfred Honeck delivered Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony as a profession of faith in God and mankind (see my blog of Feb. 13). Never before had I heard this work’s problematic finale so infused with liturgical resonance, so distant from trumpets and drums.
Last weekend, Carl St. Clair – like Honeck, a devout Roman Catholic – led his Pacific Symphony in performances of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony buoyed by a gripping religious narrative of trial and redemption. For St. Clair, the pounding Scherzo of this final Bruckner opus signifies a crucible of carnal temptation which the dying composer must endure. The Adagio’s three cataclysms signify for him a further rite of passage recalling the agonies of Christ. The coda’s beatitude, I am now convinced, is a leavetaking literally envisioned; the apocalyptic visions sited, the radiant halo of divinity towards which the humble believer ascends and into which he is absorbed — it’s all there.
St. Clair’s Bruckner is more remote from Mahler than any Bruckner I have ever encountered. (OK – I make an exception for Eugen Jochum’s mesmerizing Bruckner 8, which I was fortunate to hear at Carnegie Hall late in that conductor’s career.) Mahler is always aware of multiple worlds, multiple layers and possibilities – he is a chronic ironist triumphantly in quest of the divine. Bruckner is ever whole; essentially, he sees and hears one thing. I marvel that there are conductors – Klemperer and Tennstedt are the two who most speak to me – who equally serve both these autobiographical symphonists. Think of the exceptions: Jochum, Furtwangler, Celibidache were not Mahlerites. Mengelberg and Bernstein were not known for their Bruckner.
Friday night, I sat in the choir terrace of the Pacific Symphony’s superb Segerstrom Concert Hall – which means I could watch the anguish and exaltation etched in St. Clair’s weathered features. Self-evidently, he has at 58 acquired life experiences enough to earnestly inhabit this work (which he had resisted conducting before now). It was overwhelmingly impressive. I mean this literally: at two of the symphony’s three performances, an audience member in the choir loft collapsed and required medical attention during the death throes of the Adagio. On Saturday, the orchestra had to stop while resuscitation was administered. Incredibly the music resumed with intensified gravitas.
St. Clair’s Bruckner 9 performances were part of the orchestra’s “Music Unwound” series, supported by a $500,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant. All Music Unwound performances include production elements not normally associated with evenings at the symphony. Last season’s Music Unwound presentations of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony incorporated a visual track by my colleague Peter Bogdanoff and a superb stage actor (Nick Ullett) as Tchaikovsky. Our goal was to facilitate intense personal engagement. (Cf. my blog of Feb. 8, 2010.)
For Bruckner’s Ninth, St. Clair secured a cathedral ambience with the participation of a lighting designer, the organist Paul Jacobs, and the chanted processionals of the Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael’s Abbey. Jacobs contributed a singular reading of Bach’s St Anne Fugue, as potent as it was original. It was St. Clair’s inspired notion to share excepts from the symphony on the organ before intermission – the pertinence of the organ to Bruckner’s sonic tapestries was clinched; the impact of the orchestra was reserved for the actual performance.
Next season’s Pacific Symphony Music Unwound productions include Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, which St. Clair has programmed in sequence with the Tchaikovsky and Bruckner symphonies as the third in a trilogy of “Departures,” recording final thoughts.
I hope that the Mellon imprimatur will help St. Clair and his orchestra to acquire the national influence and recognition both have long deserved. To my knowledge, no other American orchestra pushes the envelope harder.

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