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From Austria via Brooklyn

American conductor Dennis Russell Davies, also a fixture in Europe, brings the Bruckner Orchestra Linz to the U.S. for the first time.

November 16, 2005|Michael McDonagh | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — It's a sunny November afternoon, but inside the imposing Howard Gilman Opera House of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the atmosphere is intense, cloistered.

From a podium on the stage, American conductor Dennis Russell Davies, wearing black 501s and a black-ribbed body shirt, is leading Austria's Bruckner Orchestra Linz in the first movement of Philip Glass' brand-new Symphony No. 8, which he commissioned and is preparing to conduct in its world premiere at BAM's Next Wave Festival.

Apart from the players, about 80 of the group's total of 110, the hall is almost empty. Among the few spectators is the composer, occupying an aisle seat a few rows from the conductor, glasses perched, reading his score and swaying excitedly during the more rhythmically propulsive parts. He seems utterly unfazed by a videographer and small crew shooting a documentary on him and his work. Meanwhile, a cameraman and announcer for Austrian television are also recording the proceedings.

The reason for this combination of concentrated creative energy and PR machinery is simple: Davies and his band, which added the name of 19th century Austrian composer Anton Bruckner to its own in 1967, are making their first-ever visit to the U.S., a five-program, eight-city tour that will bring them to the Orange County Performing Arts Center tonight and to Royce Hall on Thursday.

Davies' rehearsal technique is quick and to the point. The musicians look ready to take up each and every challenge, even though they've barely gotten off the plane. Problems are solved with tact, patience and good humor. And Glass, when asked his opinion, says, "That was great" -- before offering a few suggestions on specific measures that will tighten his musical argument. Davies, famous as a quick study and an advocate for many living composers, is even more famous for his long and fruitful association with Glass, which dates back more than 25 years.

Though born in Toledo, Ohio, Davies has lived in Europe for the same length of time. Besides being music director of the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, a post he has held since 2002, he is currently chief conductor of Germany's Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and a regular guest conductor in Berlin, Munich and elsewhere on the continent.

Yet he's long been a driving force in American musical life as well. In 1967, he co-founded the Juilliard Ensemble with composer Luciano Berio when he was at the New York conservatory studying piano with Lonny Epstein and learning conducting from the celebrated French maestro Jean Morel. He transformed the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's programming and visibility, winning a Grammy in the process; co-founded New York's American Composers Orchestra; and ran California's Cabrillo Music Festival for 17 years.

In recent years, however, his stateside visits have been few and far between and limited mostly to special projects such as the premieres of William Bolcom's operas "McTeague" and "A Wedding," both directed by Robert Altman for Chicago's Lyric Opera.

So this visit with the Bruckner ensemble, whose traditions date back 200 years, has been eagerly awaited by music lovers, and the rehearsal suggests why. The orchestra's tone, which is round, even lush, is Old World but in no way stuffy -- and Davies, now 61, is wise to the difference.

"Our orchestra's sound is a great pleasure," he says several days later at the home he maintains in Manhattan's East Village, which is almost whispering distance from Glass' and where the door is opened by Maki Namekawa, a young pianist with whom he's frequently collaborated and recorded. "It's a rich, Central European, warm sound -- great strings, beautiful winds, agile brass.

"Linz is in a lovely part of the world, and we're the orchestra of the state of Upper Austria -- there are seven states in all -- which is the sponsor for our tour. My immediate boss is the governor of the state. He also has the portfolio of culture, and he's the finance minister too."

That's a far cry from the American model -- "U.S. priorities are making money and business," Davies notes -- and may be one of the prime reasons his musicians appear so comfortable and happy.

Just looking at their tour schedule is exhausting. The programs include Glass' Sixth Symphony as well as the Eighth, Brahms' Third, Ravel's "La Valse," Elliott Carter's "Dialogues for Piano and Orchestra" with Namekawa as soloist, and Austrian composer Balduin Fulzer's Symphony No. 5 in its American premiere.

So how did Davies decide on what to bring his Southern California audiences -- no Glass, indeed nothing written after 1946?

"We felt that as an Austrian orchestra, we needed to play whenever possible a hometown composer," he says, "and in this case Bruckner, which our orchestra plays at the drop of a hat."

Still, two stops on the Northeast part of the tour included the massive Bruckner Eighth, but not Costa Mesa or L.A. Why?

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