“Bruckner was the village idiot!” That is what my undergraduate music history teacher, an émigré from Vienna, told us about Anton Bruckner (1824 –1896). It seems that he was not alone in feeling that way. Bruckner’s student Gustav Mahler described him as “half simpleton, half God,” and Arnold Schoenberg, also a pupil of Bruckner, reportedly wrote that word—“idiot”—in the margin of one of his teacher’s works.
Neither Mahler, Schoenberg nor anyone sitting in the audience of Symphony Hall last night would have even imagined such things after listening to the performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (i.e., IPO) in a concert sponsored by the Celebrity Series of Boston. This was a profound musical experience, 80+ minutes without intermission of glorious sound and deep musical insights into a masterwork, performed by a world-class orchestra and conducted, from memory, by its “music director for life,” Zubin Mehta. The standing ovation it received was, at least this time, more than fully deserved.
Topping the list of pleasures that evening were the sonorities produced by the strings of the IPO, led this evening by one of the orchestra’s three concertmasters, Ilya Konovalov. Their sound was sumptuous, and evoked memories of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy in the first part of the 20th century. The other members of the orchestra were equally brilliant, and virtuosic. Special praise must be given to the brass, the first horn James Madison Cox in particular, who negotiated Bruckner’s difficult and mercilessly exposed French Horn parts with accuracy and brilliance. The woodwinds, especially the gorgeous performance of first flute Eyal Ein-Habar, were equally fine, and the powerful timpani performance of Dan Moschayev was overwhelming in the best sense of the word. This evening he was the timpanist of Bruckner’s dreams.
So what to think about the judgment of my music history teacher? He was certainly overstating the case, of course, but Mahler’s description of his own teacher might be closer to the mark, although Bruckner wasn’t a simpleton but a simple man. Although he ultimately attained great fame and respect, becoming professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Vienna Conservatory in 1868, he remained the small-town village schoolmaster and organist from Ansfelden, Upper Austria, his humble manner, painfully obvious inferiority complex and limited social skills leaving him completely unprepared for the hyper-sophistication and arcane musical politics of fin-de siècle Vienna. As Steven Ledbetter writes in his superb program notes, Bruckner “was a strange apparition in his simple costume…black baggy pants…a loose coat of notably unstylish cut…with his short and stocky build and his hearty appetite, he could easily have been taken for a peasant farmer.” No wonder Edward Hanslick, the leading music critic of the time and a passionate Brahmsian and anti-Wagnerian, gave Bruckner a rough time. Brahms himself was little better. He once described Bruckner’s symphonies as “Symphonic boa constrictors.” By this he might have meant a large, uncontrollable force swallowing up everything in its path. In a certain sense, Brahms was right: Bruckner swallowed up Baroque, Classical and Wagnerian styles and refashioned them into his own harmonic and structural language, both unique and profound.
The great performance of the eighth symphony by the IPO and Mehta also proved that history was wrong. The history of the orchestra itself is also fascinating and inspiring, almost as much as that of its country. In fact, the ensemble existed 12 years before Israel was created in 1948, when it was founded in 1936 by the great Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman; for its inaugural concert Toscanini flew in especially to conduct, as an eloquent gesture of support and anti-Fascism. Readers are urged to watch the excellent documentary on the subject: “An Orchestra of Exiles” (which was recently aired by WGBH here).
On a personal note, a special treat was to hear this concert sitting next to my wife Carol Lieberman, who was a member of the IPO from 1967-1969, arriving a few days after the Six-Day War; she played some Bruckner performances with Mehta during that time. Huberman, Toscanini and most of the original members of the orchestra are now long gone, but their vision survives. May the IPO continue to thrive…and play more Bruckner.