Haydn and Bruckner from the Philadelphia Orchestra

I had been looking forward to hearing Jonas Kaufmann last weekend, but he was sick, and had to cancel a number of performances. I was disappointed. On the other hand, the previous week, due to the volunteering gig at Carnegie Hall, I scored a free ticket to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra (conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin) play Haydn and Bruckner.

I went into the concert thinking, “I’m here for the Haydn, and staying probably for Bruckner.” I had a bad Bruckner experience in graduate school, and my impression of his symphonies was what Henry James said about novels like Tolstoy’s – “large loose baggy monsters.” Also, this particular symphony, No. 4, had some sort of medieval theme to it, and 19th century people writing “romantic” things about the middle ages usually elicits a Homer-Simpson-backwards-through-the-hedge reaction from me.

But. I enjoyed the Haydn so much that I was not disposed to leave after the intermission. This was probably an intentional gambit on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s part – after all, who does not like Haydn? A Haydn symphony, operated correctly, makes everyone feel genial and contented. And if you’re lucky, you get one of the ones with a surprise or a drumroll or an imitation of a clock or whatnot. (The same is true of his chamber music. Though I’m still trying to work out why the last of the Op. 50 string quartets is called “The Frog.” According to one source I have read, it is “characterized by persistent bariolage,” which unless you know what bariolage is, could involve just about anything from anti-aircraft guns to some kind of specialized European pastry technique.*)

I will say this about Bruckner symphonies. My ticket was for the third row of the orchestra level, and I experienced much of the fourth movement through the floor as well as via vibrations in the air as is more customary. That shit is LOUD. It’s exciting, though, and by the end of the evening, I had mentally moved Bruckner symphonies to the same mental bucket occupied by Schumann’s “Frauenliebe- und Leben” song cycle: I’ll listen to it, but only live, and only rarely.


*Bariolage is basically what you do a lot if you play bluegrass fiddle, but it’s possible to play the violin for quite a few years without anyone telling you that there is a term for that thing.

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