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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 4 December 2010

Kent Nagano on Bruckner’s Ninth

December 1, 2010

Flash version here

“ … a glimpse of what lies beyond the stars”

as told to Lucie Renaud

There are various challenges the orchestra must face in Bruckner’s Ninth, one of the great works of the repertoire, including extremely difficult Wagnerian tuba writing, and I want our orchestra to have more and more experience with Wagnerian tubas, because until now that experience has been very limited. Wagner and Bruckner have not been done on a regular basis and I want our horn players to develop that possibility.

It is an enigmatic piece, because how do you perform a three-movement symphony? There are sketches of a fourth movement, which people have tried to convince me to perform in its reconstructed version, but I’m not completely convinced that it’s the right thing to do. I’ve also done treatments of the Ninth Symphony where I’ve treated the third movement as the final movement and put a movement from a different composer in between the second and the third movements. One of the favourite performances I’ve done—which I still do sometimes—is to play the first and second movements and then in the place of the third movement play a work by Arnold Schoenberg because his way of approaching composition is such a pivotal extension of Bruckner’s ideas going forward. I then treat Bruckner’s third movement as an adieu. That, I do very carefully because this treatment works in a context where people are very familiar with the symphony. Since it will be the first performance of our relationship, the OSM and I will be performing the traditional performance of the work’s most recent Urtext edition.

This symphony is a good start to a Bruckner cycle [the OSM will perform all of Bruckner’s symphonies over the course of the next few seasons] because it is an essential part of our repertoire. Every orchestra should have Bruckner in its repertoire, as each orchestra should have Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. It should also have Bruckner because of his importance in the repertoire. This doesn’t mean it has to be the dominant part of our repertoire but I do feel that for an orchestra’s health, all aspects of the great tradition have to be somewhat active and feel comfortable. The only way artists can feel comfortable is if they have had a chance to express themselves through the repertoire, and Bruckner has simply been a little underrepresented in this case.

For us, the French repertoire will always have a special position, hold a particular significance. I do feel as a performing musician myself that if you can perform Mozart really well, Debussy will sound better. If you can perform Bruckner really well, Berlioz will sound better. The broader your spectrum and the deeper your understanding of the repertoire, the better will be the results when you perform your main repertoire, your dominant repertoire.

I remember very well the first time I encountered Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. I was in the 10th grade and it was so exciting because my best friend David got a score of the symphony and we were so excited to go through it together. That afternoon, we poured over the score, looked over the orchestration and then did something terrible: we put on a recording of Bruckner’s Ninth and David and I sat at the piano and played along, reading the score, just marvelling at the harmonies and the chords in it. It is a very vivid recollection because, where I grew up, it was very difficult to get these scores and it seemed like a treasure when David brought that score to the house.

What should the audience remember from our performance? I’ll quote one of the big influences in my life, Professor Günter Wand, with whom I’ve spent ten years working on Bruckner, who said about the Ninth Symphony: “It is one of the three symphonies in which, as an audience member, you have the feeling of looking from beyond the stars down to the earth.” The Fifth, the Seventh and the Ninth Symphonies are like that. For the other great symphonies, the Fourth (the Romantic), the Sixth, the Eight, the perspective is as if you were standing on earth looking out to what’s beyond. So, in summary, Maestro Wand said: “If the orchestra plays Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony well, in the audience you should for a moment have a glimpse of what lies beyond the stars.”

The OSM under Kent Nagano will perform Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony on December 6 and 7, as part of the Bach Festival. Also on the program: Jan Lisiecki will play a few of Bach’s Choral Preludes and Marie-Nicole Lemieux will sing Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge.

(c) La Scena Musicale