The Los Angeles Philharmonic is not known as a Bruckner orchestra. No American orchestra other than the brassy Chicago Symphony is. The Austrian composer’s main body of work, his nine spiritually effusive, lyrically languorous and climactically clangorous symphonies that last an hour or more (sometimes much more) are a hard sell. Like certain cheeses, they might seem an acquired taste best suited to German-speaking lands.
Yet L.A. does have a Bruckner tradition that goes back to its close relationship with two of the great Brucknerians of the last century: Otto Klemperer (a former L.A. Phil music director) and Bruno Walter (who spent his later years in Beverly Hills). The Bruckner tradition was further burnished, big time, by Zubin Mehta, the L.A. Phil music director in the ’60s and ’70s whose ideal sound was nothing less than a glorious Viennese Bruckner sound.
For that matter, Bruckner is the essence of the Hollywood symphonic sound as well. Many of the German and Austrian émigré composers who helped to invent the film soundtrack (during the Klemperer era at the L.A. Phil) had an ear for Bruckner.
By a curious quirk of fate Thursday night, an Angeleno who grew up during the late Walter years and who was surrounded by Hollywood, Michael Tilson Thomas, led a sumptuous performance of Bruckner’s most lyrical symphony, the Seventh, at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program was originally to have been Bruckner’s Ninth under Mehta, but shoulder surgery is keeping him off the podium for three months.
With Tilson Thomas jumping in at the last minute, the orchestra was luckily able to keep it all in the L.A. Phil extended family. (Tilson Thomas was a principal guest conductor in the 1980s.) But Bruckner is for him a late career interest. He most recently conducted the Seventh with his own orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, a year ago, so he stuck with that in a program that also included Mozart’s sunniest piano concerto, No. 23, with Khatia Buniatishvili as soloist.
The A-Major Piano Concerto proved a delight. The orchestra was chamber sized, but there was nothing chamber-sized about Buniatishvili’s style. She touts a ravishingly romantic approach to all she plays (Liszt is one of her specialties). Her tone is ever robust. She lingers lovingly when she can, and Tilson Thomas decided she could. She is also splashy when she can be, and she was certainly that too. With a big Bruckner symphony coming up next, she clearly knew she needed to make an impression.
There is not much likelihood that Tilson Thomas will suddenly make Bruckner a priority. Still, he has found the perfect solution in his Seventh for serving up a full-sized symphonic meal for hard-core Brucknerians while delivering something that could possibly turn those who can’t stomach the bombast.
That recipe is for a Bruckner creamily smooth yet grand in a way true to both Vienna and Hollywood. It has Walter’s humanely lyrical touch but goes even deeper and is even more soulful. Textures are rich. with Bruckner’s chromatic harmonies handed out like high-calorie treats. Melodic lines are layered though each, a towering layer cake’s delicious stratum to be savored.
Still, you never want to underplay Bruckner, and Tilson Thomas has no problem with grandeur. A conductor who has long championed Steve Reich and John Adams, he controls Bruckner’s hypnotic repetitions with a Minimalist’s capacity to subtly build rhythmic complexity into powerfully convincing climaxes that seem unstoppable. For Bruckner, the symphony is motion of nature operating one dimension beyond what we can see or understand, and only feel and imagine. And that’s this Seventh.
With the L.A. Phil full of centennial thoughts — the orchestra turns 100 in 2019 — and with Tilson Thomas stepping down from the San Francisco Symphony in 2020, the year he turns 75, the talk and hope is of him once more developing a close relationship with his hometown band. His willingness to substitute for Mehta on short notice is a promising sign.
The playing of the L.A. Phil on Thursday was an even better sign. It was, from the top of the ensemble to the bottom, magnificent. The brass may seem to matter most in Bruckner, thus giving the section license to take over. Here the brass was not brash but a golden complement to rich strings, especially cellos and basses. Joseph Pereira, the orchestra’s principal timpanist, proved an especially important agent of elevation by giving the rhythmic drive at the center of Bruckner an extra lift.
If a hardy Bruckner symphony hardly seems holiday fare, think again. You are not likely to find a more warmly inspiring example of goodwill on a concert stage for the remainder of the year.
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Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday