Chicago Symphony Orchestra

at Orchestra Hall, May 16

By Lee Sandlin

Takashi Asahina made his American debut last week as guest conductor of the CSO, with a performance of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. It was evidently a big deal back in his hometown: on opening night tuxedoed cameramen were all over Orchestra Hall recording the concert for Japanese TV. I suppose it should come as no surprise that there’s such an enthusiastic audience for classical music in Japan; all kinds of Western music are popular over there–for all I know, they’ve got the world’s greatest square-dance caller. But it was a little eerie to learn that one of the most passionately devoted conductors of Bruckner on earth is a frail 87-year-old guy from Osaka.

The obvious bigoted question about the concert was whether or not Asahina was for real. Japanese performers, the usual line runs, can do note-perfect imitations of classical music, but they miss the soul; maybe Japanese critics would react the same way if told that Americans were nuts about some Irish short-order cook in Walla Walla, Washington, who wrote haiku. Given the Hollywood atmosphere, Asahina probably could have gotten away with just such a plausible impersonation of a performance, and the audience would have been impressed anyhow. But I was convinced by him.

The concert wasn’t perfect, but I came away with the impression that he’s the real thing: a full-blown maestro, with a persuasive vision of Bruckner and a deep sympathy with 19th-century German Romanticism. You see what I mean about eerie.

A guest shot at the CSO wasn’t the ideal way of hearing Asahina for the first time. It would have been better if he’d conducted an orchestra he’d spent some time working with. His style proved to be sternly old-fashioned to the point of quaintness, and the CSO is a strong-willed bunch not used to following that kind of relentlessly firm line; they sometimes played as though they were trying to shake him off. (If nothing else, the concert made me intensely curious about the many CDs he’s recorded with his own orchestra, the Osaka Philharmonic–not one of which has been distributed in America–including three complete sets of Bruckner symphonies and a complete Ring cycle with an all-Japanese cast.) Then too, because he’s spent his whole career trying to raise musicians up to a professional level, he was plainly unused to dealing with an orchestra that was already there: now and then he looked taken aback by the hurricanes of sound he could so casually summon. But despite these glitches, he offered a dramatic, sometimes thrilling reading of an exceptionally tricky symphony.

Bruckner composed the Fifth Symphony in 1874, when the great age of symphonic writing was already about over. It had been a fluke of history anyway, the result of Beethoven not having died in childhood. Beethoven somehow persuaded people that the symphony was the most intimate and personal musical form ever devised: a way not of proclaiming the gospel, or commemorating a military victory, or mourning a dead king–what composers used to think large-scale musical pieces were for–but of announcing to the world what mood the composer happened to be in that day. It was not an issue for Beethoven that symphonies required more and better performers than any other form of music yet invented: he knew his moods were important enough. They were larger than church and society put together.

But Bruckner’s symphonies are larger still. They’re titanic reveries, simultaneously overpowering and evanescent: like grotesquely elongated shadows following in Beethoven’s path. But they’re also conventionally devout in a way that would have made Beethoven cringe. In all of Bruckner’s symphonies the vastness of the individual soul seems to be opening up to the more capacious vastness of God, like a lone cloud rising and melting into a line of thunderstorms. Put another way, Bruckner’s symphonies keep reaching off the human scale. Not only are they interminable–the average performance of the Fifth takes 80 minutes–but they’re solemn, self-absorbed, and humorless. They give you the feeling that there’s nothing in the world besides Bruckner and the Almighty.

The psychic space they open up is so limitless that the actual music often comes off as puny. Bruckner keeps making gestures at the infinite, and then confessing his inability to encompass it. Themes develop for hundreds of bars and then trail off; after a pause a new theme comes surging out of the void, circles for a while, and then hands off to the first again as though it had grown too distracted to go on–and back again and again. It’s like watching some kind of enormous slow-motion footrace between Godzilla and King Kong.

Most conductors try to impose a clear outline on this blowsiness by cutting short the frequent pauses, reining in the endlessly overspilling crescendos, and skirting the abysses of the adagios. The result is that the symphonies end up sounding like an arbitrary succession of effects. A brisk Bruckner is a waste of everybody’s time. Another, riskier alternative is to let the symphonies expand to their final, attenuated shapelessness. Done right, they turn into the most haunting and mysterious of hymns: it’s as though you’re hearing echoes from a war in heaven. But performances like that do make for a lot of furtive watch checking in the concert hall.

Asahina took a third course. His performance was a demonstration of how much of a traditionalist Bruckner was, how for all his strange dreaminess he was still rooted in the tensely argumentative style of Beethoven. Asahina regarded the slide and drift of themes as opportunities for strong dramatic contrast, for soaring into the heart of the storm or breaking through into calmer air. It was as though he thought the Fifth had the complexly integrated energies of Beethoven’s Eroica, rather than the woolgathering that seems more like Bruckner’s trademark. His tempi were slow and emphasized the long rumbling groundswells of the strings, but he had the control to speed up when he needed to: he was especially good on the thunderous acrobatics of the scherzo. The performance was, for its first three movements anyway, a surprising and persuasive argument that Bruckner secretly shared the guilty pleasure of all the great Romantic composers: deep down he loved melodrama.

The performance fell apart in the fourth movement. Since this is where most performances hit the reef, I don’t think it was Asahina’s fault. I’m not even sure it was Bruckner’s. I blame Beethoven again. He was the one who cursed composers with the idea that the last movement of every symphony has to sound like an apocalyptic last judgment on all creation. Bruckner wasn’t really suited to make that call. The devout are not as arrogant as the agnostic when it comes to adding up the universe’s final score: Bruckner never could arrive at a convincingly doubt-free affirmation or a grand denunciatory blast of despair. He was happier with his ceaseless surges toward and retreats from certainty, with passages that rise into gorgeous unstable towers and slip helplessly into the decaying tide. I don’t believe he thought any of his symphonies really needed to end. But for his last movement of the Fifth he dutifully followed Beethoven’s lead anyway and worked up a sluggishly intensifying cataclysm of churning strings and bombastic fanfares, a jerry-built affair that tries to be joyous mostly through being loud.

Asahina treated this mess with too much respect. He conducted it as though it were a fixed and imposing landscape, an unusually craggy mountain range–bewilderingly structured perhaps but still rising inevitably toward a wild and lightning-crowned peak. Granted, that was more interesting than most performances I’ve heard; they normally play like a nebulous parade of ever-more-deafening noise. But the focus and tension grew slack, and the mind–my mind, anyway–kept wandering. For long stretches I felt as though Asahina had traced his way out of sight down a tricky valley, and I was waiting for him to emerge into view on a more distant slope.

It was during these idle moments that I found myself wondering whether Asahina might not just love Bruckner too much–had studied his idiom too closely, had become too devoted a follower of the German Romantic tradition. It was a weakness of his reading of the adagio movement that he seemed overconfident of what he was going to find there and left no room for the dreamier vistas Bruckner kept yearning after. Asahina’s Bruckner wasn’t much given to doubt. It was the one thing in the performance that Bruckner himself would have found impossibly foreign. But that was probably more a difference of temperament than of culture. Bruckner was forever allowing himself to drift into dubiousness and withdrawal; for Asahina it’s clear the music is perfectly achieved the way it is.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David DeJong.