When Boston Symphony Hall opened in 1900, music critic Philip Hale proposed the following sign be affixed over its doors: “Exit in Case of Brahms.” Another person with a like sense of humor might have suggested that audience members be prepared to step aside for the stampede if the music of Anton Bruckner was on the program as well.

Perhaps there is no symphonic composer (at least among those of the pre-modern era) who still has the power to strike fear into the hearts of even veteran concertgoers as does Bruckner. And yet, great conductors and orchestras relish the opportunity to perform the music of this gifted, but woefully misunderstood composer.

To a great degree, negative reactions to Bruckner’s music are the product of misplaced expectations. Bruckner was a devoted admirer of the music of his friend, Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Bruckner was also a relative contemporary of fellow Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Both Mahler and Bruckner wrote symphonies of epic length. In truth, Bruckner’s music sounds little to nothing like that of Wagner or Mahler. And as a result, Bruckner’s works suffered (and continue to suffer) the worst of both worlds. Those who dislike Wagner and/or Mahler’s music steer away from Bruckner. Fans of the composers who approach Bruckner hoping for a similar musical experience are bound to be disappointed.

So, what does Bruckner’s music sound like? Certainly, one can hear the influences of such composers as Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and, in particular, their epic Ninth Symphonies. But above all, Bruckner’s music is an expression of its creator’s spirit. Throughout his life, Bruckner was a devoutly religious Catholic. Like the other composer featured on the May 6 and 8 concerts, Johann Sebastian Bach, Anton Bruckner viewed all of his musical works, both sacred and secular, as offerings to his Lord. For example, when Bruckner became aware that he would not live long enough to complete the final movement of his own Ninth Symphony, he suggested that his Te Deum for chorus and orchestra could serve in its stead.

Just as someone takes time in praying, so Bruckner took time in the musical expression of his religious faith. The great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954), one of the foremost Bruckner interpreters, felt the composer’s mission was “to introduce the divine into our human world.” Again to quote Furtwängler, Bruckner’s music soars “broadly and freely in a state of bliss, released from earthly cares — fulfillment without sentimentality, without calculation.” Those words are a perfect encapsulation of the breathtaking opening measures of the Bruckner Seventh Symphony, where the cellos and solo horn sing a radiant ascending melody that seems to stretch heavenward. It’s a melody that reappears to transcendent effect at the conclusion of the entire symphonic journey.

If you prefer to approach Bruckner’s music from a secular perspective, think perhaps of experiencing it as you might a long walk in the beautiful countryside, or a leisurely stroll through a museum filled with glorious works of art. In both cases, you want to take the time to savor all the beauties presented, without yielding to the urge to hurry and move on.

Of course, this sense of spaciousness is another aspect of Bruckner’s music that can be problematic for modern audiences used to entertainment that provides rapid, if not instant, gratification. But if you are prepared to meet Bruckner on his terms, the rewards are uniquely fulfilling, particularly when performed by a sympathetic world-class conductor and orchestra.

And indeed, Bruckner’s symphonies have formed an important component of the partnership between the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and its Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles. The upcoming performances on May 6 and 8 of the Seventh Symphony will mark the fifth time that Maestro Runnicles and the Orchestra have collaborated on the music of Bruckner. Previous Runnicles-ASO Bruckner Symphony performances have included Nos. 4 (May, 2007), 7 (March, 2003), 8 (May, 2005) and 9 (February, 2004). And in January of 2011, Donald Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will perform the great Bruckner Eighth Symphony on a program that also includes Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, with Music Director Robert Spano as soloist.

The music of Bruckner presents unique challenges to both the performers and audiences, but also unique rewards. After the Vienna premiere of the Bruckner Seventh in March of 1886, the composer received the following telegram: “Am deeply shaken — it was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had.” The author of that telegram was a fellow composer and resident of Vienna — the “Waltz King,” Johann Strauss.

Concerts of May 6 and 8, 2010:
Donald Runnicles, Conductor
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 7 in E Major (1883)

Concerts of January 27, 28 and 29, 2011:
Donald Runnicles, Conductor
Robert Spano, Piano
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466 (1785)
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1887, rev. 1890)

Ken Meltzer is the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Insider and Program Annotator.