An Evening of Romance: Bruckner’s Bicentennial Celebration              

April 25, 2024

Photo by Geremy Kornreich
Story by Kyle MacMillan

Music Director Peter Oundjian is quick to admit that he is taking something of a risk with his July 14 line-up for the 2024 Colorado Music Festival, which features no sizzling soloist but focuses instead on two calmer symphonic masterworks. However, he is confident it will pay off.

“This is the program,” he said, “about which I feel the greatest sense of anticipation and excitement this summer. Both of these masterpieces represent the ultimate power of music from the Romantic period. It will be a memorable and uplifting experience — the kind that the freedom and openness of the Colorado Music Festival experience makes possible.”

The concert marks two important milestones in the classical world: the 150th anniversary of the birth of Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Anton Bruckner (1824-1896).

The July 14 program will open with the string orchestra version of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4, an 1899 string sextet in one movement that runs a little more than 30 minutes. The composition was inspired by Richard Dehmel’s identically titled modernist poem of love, reconciliation and transformation, and it can be seen as an example of programmatic music — instrumental music that tries to convey an extra-musical narrative. 

Although the composer is best known as the revolutionary inventor of twelve-tone music, this important early work is rooted in the world of Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner. One of Schoenberg’s best known and most accessible works, Verklärte Nacht employs some complex, forward-looking harmonies but remains solidly anchored in tonality. 

“Probably people are more afraid of Schoenberg than almost any other composer you can name,” Oundjian said, “and most people aren’t aware of or ignore the fact that he spent the first many years of his life writing late-Wagnerian, glorious Romantic music.”

Bruckner - performed at the classical music festival the Colorado Music Festival summer 2024

Anton Bruckner

The rest of the program is devoted to Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, Romantic, one of the 11 works in the form by the composer. Known for their monumentality, his symphonies can stretch more than 80 minutes in length, but the Fourth clocks in around just 65 minutes.

Perhaps not as immediately recognizable as the music of Mozart or as heroic as that of Beethoven, Bruckner’s works look both forward and backward with extraordinary depth and rich, forward-looking harmonies. “Bruckner’s music is unbelievably beautiful,” Oundjian said. “It’s mesmerizing and spiritual.”

The Fourth Symphony reminds Oundjian, a former violinist, of the late reflective chamber music of Franz Schubert, including stunning masterworks like the String Quintet in C major, which demand “tremendous patience” to properly interpret. “But there is absolutely no lack of tension,” Oundjian said, “in fact, musical tension is key to great Bruckner performances.”

According to Benjamin Korstvedt, who serves as president of the 93-year-old Bruckner Society of America, Bruckner’s symphonies faced resistance early on, especially from his local orchestra, the hide-bound Vienna Philharmonic, but came to be regularly played by the end of his life.

In the 1930s, the Nazis fixated on the composer’s music and used it for propaganda purposes even though he was Austrian, never espoused anti-semitic views and had Jewish friends, like Gustav Mahler. Korstvedt, a professor of music at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., made all these points during a 2019 talk at the school’s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide. 

The Third Reich’s association with the composer, though, had a negative impact on the music’s standing, but that setback proved temporary. “Certainly, in the last 20 or 30 years, it has had a strong resurgence,” Korstvedt said, “and it’s performed worldwide.”

The Colorado Music Festival has performed works by Bruckner on four past concerts, including a 1993 performance of the Fourth Symphony. Also featured have been the Fifth and Eighth Symphonies, as well as a rare presentation in 2010 of his Requiem (1849) with then-music-director Michael Christie on the podium.   

Korstvedt became fascinated with Bruckner after he finished his bachelor’s degree and bought some recordings of the composer’s music in the 99-cent bin of a local music store. In October, in conjunction with the Bruckner bicentennial, the Oxford University Press is set to publish the scholar’s latest book, Bruckner’s Fourth: The Biography of a Symphony, which explores the three versions of the work (the second, standard version will be heard on July 14) and the revisions that took place from 1874 through 1888.

“The symphony was first composed during a transitional era during Bruckner’s career as a composer,” Korstvedt said. “He wrote four symphonies very quickly over the course of four years: the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth. And, after that, partly because his concept of the symphony was evolving pretty rapidly, he revisited those symphonies and revised them, and in the case of the Fourth, recomposed it essentially.”

As interesting as it might be, audiences don’t need to know any of this music history to enjoy the July 14 concert. “We’re going to have a Sunday performance,” Oundjian said, “where people who want to come and hear some of the most glorious music ever written can experience an evening of romance.” 

Music Director Peter Oundjian and the Colorado Music Festival perform Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht on Sunday, July 14. Details & tickets >  

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