NSO’s superb performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony

NSO’s superb performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony

Portait of Anton Bruckner in his later years. (Via Wikipedia)
Portait of Anton Bruckner in his later years. (Via Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON, June 13, 2014 – Under the baton of music director Christoph Eschenbach, the National Symphony Orchestra opened its final regular season concert program Thursday evening in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with an unusual and compelling performance contrasting four of composer Anton Bruckner’s infrequently performed choral motets with his final completed symphony, the massive Symphony No. 8 in C-minor.

During the Thursday evening performance of this program, the NSO also honored seven longtime members of the orchestra who are retiring from the orchestra.

Four Motets

The evening began with Maestro Eschenbach at the podium facing an empty stage, save for the small University of Maryland Chamber Singers ensemble arrayed in the choristers’ seats above the main stage. Under his direction, they proceeded to sing, a cappella, a selection of Bruckner’s religious motets: “Locus iste” (“This place”), “Christus factus est” (“Christ became”), “Ave Maria” (“Hail Mary”) and “Virga Jesse” (“The Rod of Jesse”)—the last two in reverse order from the sequence printed in this weekend’s program notes.

These quiet, contemplative, intensely spiritual motets represent the deeply Catholic side of Bruckner’s complicated musical personality, one that’s rarely heard inside the concert hall. They were sung with remarkable simplicity, sincerity and expressiveness by the Chamber Singers whose diction, phrasing and phenomenal breath control were beyond exceptional.

The ensemble’s performance was greatly appreciated by those in attendance, all of whom kept up the applause even as Mr. Eschenbach attempted, with some difficulty, to coax the Chamber Singers’ apparently reluctant music director, Edward Maclary, to come on stage to take a share of the credit for this performance.

After a brief intermission, the audience settled in for the evening’s main event, Bruckner’s epic Symphony No. 8. It’s a huge work not often performed live due to its length (nearly one and one-half hours), complexity and more than occasional eccentricity. It’s also notable for the composer’s frequent use of a substantially augmented brass choir.

Maestro Eschenbach’s use of the composer’s religious motets as a kind of overture to introduce this symphony was not a casual notion. For all its fiery brass statements and dramatic flourishes, this symphony, like much of Bruckner, is in actuality the highly spiritual journey of a soul, treading the often uncertain margins that at times vaguely separate good and evil.

Bruckner: Religion, reputation, and intellectual and spiritual dichotomy

In his time, Bruckner was derided by many as being naïve and uncertain when it came to the architecture, development and orchestration of his huge symphonic works, a criticism that was as much political—he was well-known as a Wagner supporter, earning the opprobrium of Brahms fans and critics—as it was pure snobbery, attributable, perhaps, to this composer’s lowly, non-Protestant roots.

More problematic is the fact that Bruckner, who had achieved considerable renown by middle age as a music professor and as an exceptional church organist, was indeed naïve as charged, at least in one sense. Filled with religious humility further fueled by an acute awareness of his humble origins, he frequently succumbed to criticism of his works by revising his symphonies again and again, often needlessly, forcing today’s conductors to choose, at times, between competing versions of each work—something we’ll revisit in a moment.

It’s this critic’s suspicion that Bruckner was, in fact, a bit ahead of his time in many ways. He took Wagner’s innovations in chromaticism and his notion of musical motifs to the next step, introducing massive and insistent dissonances and greater melodic fragmentation into the mix, something many critics and listeners tended to ascribe to an amateurish compositional style.

But this is decidedly wrong. Bruckner, perhaps a bit like the English poet William Blake, possessed a perhaps primitive but decidedly clear outline of the inner life of both mind and soul at least as he had come to understand them.

In his neglected “Prophetic” poems, Blake—a largely untutored Cockney who made a hardscrabble living as an engraver and illustrator—creates, in effect, a mythic psychology, assigning the role of gods and demigods to concepts like the id, ego and superego, in an attempt to understand what Freud and others were attempting to codify nearly a century later.

In a similar way, Bruckner understood that human intellect and spirituality constantly contended against one another in what Blake would have called “porches of the brain.”

Fragments of thoughts, feelings and longings collide in Bruckner’s music in ways that anticipate the work of 20th century novelists like Joyce and Faulkner who explored this kind of “stream of consciousness” in the form of novels that attempted to get deep inside the hearts and heads of their central characters. But, given that Bruckner was exploring these regions rather earlier and in musically unusual ways, it’s probably understandable that few could understand where he was going.

I found it interesting that my esteemed spouse, who often attends concerts and the opera with me, was riveted by this symphony. She generally favors Mozart and the baroque, and much prefers shorter works to the epic—and very lengthy—expressions of the late-Romantic period composers. But she was literally transfixed by the Bruckner 8th, noting that it was the continuous blending of the simplest musical motifs building into the greatest complexities in often startling ways.

In this, she seems to echo the comments of Gustav Mahler, another late-Romantic giant who greatly admired Bruckner and took inspiration from him for his own later, gigantic symphonies. Mahler characterized Bruckner as “half simpleton, half god,” intending the former term in its earlier, less pejorative sense.

In any case, Bruckner’s chaos of fragments, multiple motifs, complex developments, and deployment of organ-like massed orchestral choirs, particularly in the brass sections, likely served to launch many composers, ranging from Mahler and Scriabin to Zemlinksy and Korngold into the promising realm of “extended tonality” that was later cut short by the 20th century dogma of serialism. It’s an interesting evolution, but an unfashionable story in academic music history.

Eschenbach and the NSO get on Bruckner’s wavelength

In any event, what remains for us today are the intellectual and aural experiences of hearing a Bruckner symphony live. And in at least this critic’s opinion, one is not likely to experience a better performance of Bruckner’s 8th than the one that’s on offer from the NSO this weekend.

Clearly, Maestro Eschenbach has great reverence for this work. If nothing else, we offer the evidence that on Thursday, we watched him conduct all 90 minutes or so of this work without a score. As it was with Bruckner, he has the entire concept, as well as all the notes, firmly inside his head, so he knows where he wants to take his orchestra at all times. It was as if he was channeling this unusual composer.

The standard media take on Maestro Eschenbach is that he’s quirky, eccentric, and unpredictable. For us, at least, this is typical, lazy, echo-journalism. It’s the media’s story and they’re sticking with it. But in the case of Bruckner, you can take this meme both ways.

We happen to think that Mr. Eschenbach has a clear game plan for these concerts and offer as evidence the brilliant performance we witnessed ourselves. On the other hand, if Mr. Eschenbach is indeed eccentric, what better interpreter could we have found for a composer who’s often regarded in the same light? So no matter which way you look at it, putting Mr. Eschenbach and Anton Bruckner together on stage is a win-win proposition.

Better yet, it seemed on Thursday that the NSO was more than willing to travel along with Mr. Eschenbach, giving a marvelous, emphatic reading to this immense score while following every twist, turn, and abrupt Brucknerian pause with near perfection.

Additionally, the orchestra frequently played in a manner that reminded one of the kind of choral cross harmonies we heard earlier in the motets as well as the sectional juxtapositions we generally associate with 19th and 20th century organ compositions which themselves are symphonic in conception.

This effect was most obvious, of course, in the brass section, brilliantly augmented by the addition of four “Wagner tubas.” But even the first and second violins sounded somehow qualitatively different, as if functioning on some kind of parallel musical plane. It’s some of the best ensemble playing we’ve ever heard from this orchestra.

Bruckner’s orchestral coloring is impressive, though perhaps a bit more mundane than Mahler’s later and often uncanny splashes of musical color. Nevertheless, Maestro Eschenbach and the NSO kept things varied and interesting in the longish first and the very long third movements, varying the palette with highly-effective mini-crescendi and the occasional exciting accelerando.

A note here is in order for the way the orchestra handled the brief but lustrous, nearly ethereal moments, particularly in the third movement, where a lone harp shines through. In what even we think was a bit of a compositional misstep, Bruckner’s scoring makes it tough for the sound of this relatively delicate instrument to come through the orchestral fabric, particularly when it’s not doubled by a companion harp.

In Thursday’s concert, however, the harp was placed on the front of the stage to the audience’s left, and its sound was assisted by a slight boost from a perfectly placed microphone. Electronic boosts are not something we ordinarily like, but this was judiciously accomplished, allowing this symphony’s lovely harp excursions to float out over the large orchestra without being overcome.

As the symphony progressed, even more effective during Thursday’s performance were the second and final movements. The second movement, an unusually placed scherzo, adheres to Bruckner’s signature practice, which replaces the usual scherzo’s customary speed and/or dancelike grace with an insistent, driving musical motif.

But this scherzo does the pattern one better, as the driving motif arrives almost as if by stealth, as the orchestra slithers up to each climax, the final bits of which are pounded home by being repeated four times apiece.

The brass, of course, was key to each successive climax here, emphasizing the drama as dissonance is driven home before it resolves into a triumphant major.

We get a similar effect in the finale. However, no sneaking up here. The full orchestra hammers home the insistent initial beat of this movement in a way that reminds us, perhaps, of the opening bars of Holst’s much later suite, “The Planets.” Once the beat is established, the brass again blasts forth its main statement with stunning emphasis.

Of course, Bruckner being Bruckner, may pauses, motifs, and long pauses remain. Material in the finale also acknowledges earlier motifs in the previous three movements, but in a way that’s not always obvious. You have to listen carefully to find some of them, which for us, at least, gives the lie to the myth that Bruckner was “amateurish” in the way he did things.

The entire finale drives toward a substantial recapitulation and concluding bars that end with the entire orchestra playing in unison. It’s a spectacular conclusion in any performance of this work. But it was even better in this outstanding performance by the NSO. Thursday’s audience erupted in unison, giving Maestro Eschenbach and the orchestra one of the longer, louder, and more appreciative ovations we’ve experienced in a long time.

But all of it was well deserved, and we hope Mr. Eschenbach and the performers enjoyed this moment of triumph. There were a few empty seats for Thursday’s performance: Bruckner is still not everybody’s cup of tea. But we’d urge anyone who’s wavering from attending this weekend’s performances to shake off the predjudices and get a ticket to hear what we think was a definitive performance of the Bruckner 8th.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

Remaining performances of this program will take place at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Friday and Saturday evening. For tickets and information, visit the NSO pages at the Kennedy Center’s website.


Concert Notes: NSO’s salute to departing members

During Thursday’s concert, just after the intermission, the NSO organization honored 7 retiring members of the family who, as a program insert notes, “have given more than 250 years of service to the National Symphony Orchestra.

Honored Thursday were: Associate Concertmaster Elisabeth Adkins; Violinists Jacqueline Anderson, Charlotte David Paramore and Perry Holley; Cellist Yvonne Caruthers; Hornist Sylvia Alimena; and the NSO’s Principal Librarian, Marcia Farabee.

Concert Notes: A farewell to conductor Rafael Frübech de Burgos (1933-2014)

In case you were not aware, in another program insert, the NSO acknowledged with sorrow the passing this week of Spanish Maestro Rafael Frübech de Burgos, who succumbed to cancer. A brilliant, oft-honored conductor in his own right, he had served as the NSO’s Principal Guest Conductor from 1980 until 1988. He will be greatly missed.



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