Earlier this month I had the opportunity to go to Linz Austria for the weekend for the city’s annual Ars Electronica Festival which also served as the opening event of the Bruckner Orchester’s season.
I first became aware of the orchestra in recordings of the work of Korngold under Caspar Richter. This orchestra came into the realm of Glass lovers shortly after 2002 when Dennis Russell Davies became its music director, a post he still holds. I recall the premiere of Glass’s Sixth Symphony at Carnegie Hall on the occasion of Glass’s 65th birthday and reading that the piece was co-commissioned by this esteemed orchestra where it would soon have its European premiere.
My Hotel Room am Domplatz
Three years later and in 2005 the Bruckner Orchester embarked on its first tour of the United States. It began the tour with the world premiere of Glass’s Eighth Symphony, paired with the Sixth, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The world premiere of the Eighth Symphony was overwhelming for me (skip to minute 17:00). It was that power that a great artist has to occasionally knock you over. In a very real way that piece could have only been written by Glass at that time, at that moment in history, for that conductor, and for that ensemble. Indeed, this became more clear to me when the orchestra performed the Sixth Symphony on the second half of the program that I became aware that it too was one of Glass’s finest pieces. I did not at all walk away from the premiere performance of Plutonian Ode in 2002 with that impression despite that fact that it was the same conductor, the same soloist, and the same piece of music on the music stands. It was the orchestra that to me, made all the difference.
To put it simply this was a first rate orchestra, an organic whole, that performed Glass’s music better than anyone other group perhaps with the exception of the Philip Glass Ensemble at its zenith. For the better part of two decades Glass had been using the orchestra as his principal means of expression and this orchestra dove into the music with enthusiasm and ability. Gone were the days of ideology and stodginess from the musical establishment. This was an orchestra which loved playing this music and it showed, the fact that it was not an American orchestra mattered little.
Symphony No.8 was recorded in my native commonwealth at Mechanic’s Hall in Worcester Massachusetts immediately after the premiere at BAM and before the orchestra went on with the rest of its tour. The recording of both of those symphonies further cemented my crush on the ensemble as did its future visits to New York City. I didn’t have to wait long to hear the group play “other” music was when they paired Korngold’s Violin Concerto (one of my favorites) with Renaud Capucon with Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony (another one of my favorites!) shortly after the Brooklyn concerts at Avery Fisher Hall in 2005. This represented the group’s core repertoire direct from its ‘wheelhouse.’ It was a revelation.
It’s one thing to hear a great orchestra comprised of great international players, but it’s quite another thing to hear a great group from the land where the orchestra itself was born playing music of its own tradition. It was a fantastic performance. Four years later in 2009 the BOL came back to New York and performed Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony with Glass Violin Concerto. At that time in November 2009 we didn’t yet refer to that piece as “Violin Concerto No.1” as the premiere of Violin Concerto No.2 was still a few weeks away. On that same tour the group returned to BAM for a triumphant concert performance of Glass’s opera Kepler which had been commissioned by the Landestheater Linz where the BOL is the house orchestra.
Furthermore the group then rescued Glass’s Seventh Symphony from obscurity by performing its European premiere on New Year’s Day 2009 in a revised version and went on to commission and premiere the Ninth Symphony and record the Tenth. There has been no other ensemble with such consistent dedication to the music of Philip Glass in history. It’s naturally largely due to its music director, but the orchestra itself appeared very happy to be performing this music.
So after such a long period I greatly relished the chance to see the orchestra in its home environment. Linz is a wonderful city. About the size of Burlington Vermont, it’s absolutely astounding that such a small place could support such a fine orchestra or, as it recently did, build a brand new $236 million opera house. On this occasion of the Ars Electronica Festival the orchestra was performing in “Post City,” an abandoned postal distribution center. The festival had filled every corner of this industrial building with interesting installations and different forms of art.
I arrived on Saturday afternoon and I was treated to the first of two weekend performances of Maki Namekawa performing selected Glass piano etudes live to projection by Gerfried Stocker. The “Big Concert” with the Bruckner Orchestra Linz on Sunday featured music by Chen Yi, Aaron Copland, and Elliot Goldenthal with the orchestra seated on a train platform deep in the belly of this building with six large projectors broadcasting animated images inspired by the music. It was a rousing and unique experience more akin to what you imagine happening in industrial ruins in a place like New York rather than a quaint European town. All through this, the orchestra was fantastic. The sections all played as one and the percussion was incredibly tasteful.
The backdrop to my trip was the migrant crisis in Europe and the dozens of migrants who died in the back of a truck when attempting to get to Western Europe. One wonders about the future and priority of such cultural enterprises in modern times. I was “stuck” in Linz an extra day when there was a complication with the airline. Not only was I not about to complain, but I had time for a guided tour of the opera house (where I got to meet Robert Wilson who was in town directing his production of Verdi’s La Traviata) and that last night we had a wonderful late meal with Namekawa at a castle overlooking the city from a hill where one could take in the entire city. I was able to think about the city’s history and how its culture is one main reason why people want to come here.
It’s the city where Anton Bruckner was from and indeed that great composer is buried right nearby at Sankt Florian. It’s also the city where Adolf Hitler was born. It’s also the city that showed more economic and institutional support to the artistic vision of Philip Glass, a foreigner, than any other place on earth.
Perhaps 50 or 100 years in the future it will be the place where lovers of Philip Glass’s music will go to see a site along the Danube and say “That’s where the Ninth Symphony was premiered” or “That’s the residence where Glass composed sections of Kepler.” Outside of New York I can think of no other more relevant artistic home for the music of Philip Glass.