The Curtis Symphony Orchestra concluded its 2018-19 season by doing something it had never done before, namely, Anton Bruckner. There isn’t any easy Bruckner, but the Curtis essayed his last and arguably most difficult work: the Ninth Symphony. There are longer Bruckner symphonies, but perhaps only because the Ninth was left incomplete at Bruckner’s death in October 1896. As it is, the three completed movements are an hour long in performance. The 200 manuscript pages of the unfinished finale suggest a movement of twenty minutes or more. But the ambition of the work is not merely indicated by its projected length. Its dedicatee was God.
Curtis guest conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin clearly thought that the Orchestra was ready to take the plunge. Nor was he mistaken. The performance of the Ninth was first-rate both in conception and execution, with fine playing from all choirs and exquisite dynamic contrasts. But that was not the only noteworthy thing about the concert. Its first half could not have provided a more complete contrast to the style, sense, and compositional approach of Bruckner, and thus a challenge of a quite different sort.
The 1890s saw not only the climax of the dominant musical style of the nineteenth century, Romanticism, but the introduction of a new one, Impressionism, that was in many ways its antithesis. It is extraordinary to think that just as Bruckner was producing his culminating masterwork, Claude Debussy, with no less effort, was composing the first extended Impressionist score, Nocturnes. In setting them side by side in the Curtis concert, Nézet-Séguin was giving the Orchestra a chance to display the full scope of its musical sensitivity and virtuosity. But he was also offering the audience an opportunity to explore a unique musical decade in contrasting works that illustrate the mysterious alchemy by which major compositional styles evolve.
Romanticism was by no means an exhausted style in the 1890s, which saw not only the Bruckner Ninth but Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, Dvorak’s Symphony from the New World, and the monumental Second and Third symphonies of Mahler. But the very nature of these achievements suggested that Western music also needed somewhere else to go. Richard Strauss had already made his startling debut, signaling a shift not so much in style as sensibility. It was Debussy, however, who rethought the basic Romantic structure of narrative from the ground up. Musical Impressionism had already had its visual analogue in the pictorial art of late nineteenth-century France, and the art critic Théodore Duret who saw in Nocturnes a direct response to it was not mistaken. Bruckner, in his Ninth Symphony, had sought to address his God—the very God that his younger contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche had declared to be dead. Debussy, in Nuages, the first movement of Nocturnes, attempted to suggest the expressive passage of clouds, the shape-shifting form that conceals the heavens and resists any final definition. Bruckner had dealt in massive blocks of sound. Debussy employed delicate washes. Both men, in their different cities and different worlds, were simultaneously at work to produce their vastly different conceptions of sound and art. Perhaps there had never been a moment of more radical disjuncture in musical history.
The Orchestra (including, in its concluding section, Choral Arts Philadelphia) responded with as much grace and nuance in the Debussy—and, in the concert’s opening work, Maurice Ravel’s Une Barque sur l’océan, ably conducted by Curtis conducting fellow Yue Bao—as it did with massed power and force in Bruckner. Hearing the two works side by side, moreover, suggested not only their differences but a certain affinity as well, for Bruckner in the quiet passages that bridge his great outbursts has a delicacy of tone and color that, in its own terms, is second to none.
Nézet-Séguin recognized the graduating members of the Orchestra at the end of the concert, and his personal affection for it was manifest. So was that of the audience, which cheered it rousingly. I have said it before, but it is more worth saying again than ever: the Curtis Symphony Orchestra is not only a civic treasure but a bridge itself to our cultural future, and a testament to the ever-renewed vitality of great art.