Named for its hometown’s favorite son, the Bruckner Orchester Linz is embarking on a US tour, somewhat ironically offering a repertoire of almost exclusively American music. The tour began on an auspicious note with a Carnegie Hall appearance on the day of Philip Glass’ 80th birthday in a program that included the world premiere of his Eleventh Symphony.

Bruckner Orchestra Linz © Reinhard Winkler
Bruckner Orchestra Linz
© Reinhard Winkler
Under the helm of music director Dennis Russell Davies (a native of Toledo, Ohio), the orchestra’s predilection towards American music perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise and matters opened energetically with Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, in a suite arranged by Morton Gould. Spanning the continuum of nearly half an hour, Gould’s suite captures the essence of the opera and is very much a product of both composer’s enthusiasm for blurring the boundaries between classical and popular traditions. The boisterous intro exuded glittering Americana before the sultry and languid “Summertime”, very finely given in the strings. The sounds of the muted brass made for a memorable “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”, and the suite was rounded off with a rousing “I’m On My Way”.

Martin Achrainer © Reinhard Winkler
Martin Achrainer
© Reinhard Winkler
The evening’s real discovery was in the solitary piece exported from the orchestra’s home country, Zemlinsky’s Symphonic songs. Nonetheless, this orchestral song cycle fitted with the program’s American themes in that it is comprised of seven settings in German translation of poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Bass-baritone Martin Achrainer’s powerful voice and razor-sharp diction penetrated into the meaning of the often stark poetry. Both singer and conductor seemed visibly ruffled, however, by the audience’s insistence on applause after each song, which did little to service the overarching narrative of the cycle.

It opened with a dark “Lied aus Dixieland”, anchored by the austerity of the bassoons – not a mood one would generally associate with Dixieland, but fitting as per the macabre content of the Langston Hughes poem. Filled with unsettling dissonances, it was Zemlinsky at his most daring, perched on the precipice of tonality. There was a real defiance to “Lied der Baumwollpacker”, while “Totes braunes Mädel” plodding along to an eerie funeral drum.  “Übler Bursche” overwhelmed in its dense orchestration, though Achrainer had no issue adequately projecting. “Erkenntnis” was a highlight, beginning in wistful nostalgia only to grow increasingly agitated.  Drums brought the “Afrikanischer Tanz” vividly to life, building to a massive crescendo, and the concluding “Arabeske” was firmly in the realm of the grotesque, akin to something that might come from the pen of Mahler.

The second half introduced Duke Ellington with a suite extracted from Black, Brown and Beige, an extended work for jazz orchestra he wrote for a 1943 concert at Carnegie Hall.  Comprised of three movements named for each of the titular colors, the suite was arranged for the standard symphony orchestra in 1970 by conductor Maurice Peress (although including a drum kit and bass played pizzicato, as if to remind one of the work’s jazz band origins). The alto saxophone and muted trombone in particular gave the piece a colorful sheen, and Davies imbued it with a jaunty swing, apparent from the powerhouse brass that opened. To be sure, this was a decidedly populist offering, but one that nonetheless bore the craft of a serious composer – jazz-inflected, yet meticulously notated to every minutiae.

Angelique Kidjo © CAMI
Angelique Kidjo
© CAMI
The evening concluded with a tribute to the now octogenarian Philip Glass. Written in 2013 for Angélique Kidjo, Ifè: Three Yorùbá Songs was the product of Glass’ meticulous study of the rhythms and phrasing inherent in the Yorùbá language of Kidjo’s native Benin. Kidjo took to the stage dressed in a traditional outfit, its bright colors sharply contrasting the black and white attire of the orchestra.  The nature of the songs were rather discursive and narrative, more akin to speech than singing, which didn’t allow the audience to experience the full force of Kidjo’s formidable voice. Accordingly, she was amplified, with balance against the acoustic instruments somewhat fitful. Keen to communicate the folk legends on which the songs are derived, Kidjo gestured with her hands to suggest the text – helpful given that the program books only included English translations; those not fluent in Yorùbá thus had little chance of following along blow-by-blow.

“Olodumare” was immediately recognizable as Glass in its incessantly repeated motivic cells.  A colorful percussion battery suggested music of the African continent; given the primacy of rhythm in both Glass and African music, it was a natural marriage.  Following an animated reception – certainly this three-time Grammy Award winner was the evening’s biggest draw – Kidjo repeated the concluding “Oshumare” (albeit truncated) in a spirited if unimaginative encore.