Concert Review: NSO- Symphonic Milestone: Bruckner’s Magnum Opus

It’s a lot of music.

This concert marks the end. 
It was the last completed symphony that Bruckner wrote, and it is the last concert of both the NSO’s season and the last concert of the month, thus beginning a long four-month stretch of no concerts at our National Concert Hall while it gets some renovations or something. I’ll be eager to see it in the fall. I can’t imagine it’s getting a huge makeover or anything, but who knows?
It was a large crowd last night. Even from the downstairs entrance I went in to have dinner downstairs beforehand, the place was abuzz. It felt like a big highly-anticipated event, and maybe it was, and if it was, there’s good reason. Bruckner’s eighth was only performed three times during the composer’s life, as I recall, and it isn’t a terribly common piece on concert programs, at least relative to lots of others, because it’s just big. 
I had been not feeling terribly well these past few days, which reminded me of the season opener last fall, Mahler’s ninth, another large Austrian epic. The season began and ended with similar feelings of excitement and mild gastrointestinal distress. 
My relationship with these two pieces, though, is quite different. While we haven’t actually done Mahler 9 yet, I’ve mentioned it many times, both in anticipation and elation, both before and after actually hearing the piece. 
There wasn’t nearly as much build up for the Bruckner concert, but it was also a do-not-miss. They’re both huge pieces, but aside from that, I don’t see as much in common between these two monstrosities, but I probably I would if I were more familiar with the Bruckner. 
I took my seat, the exact same vantage point I had for Shostakovich last week, but without
the vigilante college student conductor a few seats over, although I did see him at the Yuja Wang recital the night before. He was trying to play the piece on his knees. His hands on his knees, not his person on his knees. 
The orchestra came out and took their seats. This process takes longer with Bruckner than Beethoven or Bach, obviously. Harps and horns and Wagner tubas and percussion and stands for auxiliary instruments. Everyone took their seats and settled in and conspicuously did NOT tune. 
Our conductor walked out, but it wasn’t until he reached the podium and finished his bow that we could see he had a microphone in his hand. He addressed the audience quite solemnly. He spoke of a recently-deceased professor of music/composer, 馬水龍, and announced that the following piece (Bach?) was in his honor, and asked that the audience hold their applause. We did. 
This was the first time I’ve ever been present for a ‘hold your applause’ memorial-type piece, and I must say, the effect is striking and somber, far more so than one might think due to nothing more than a “please don’t clap” request. 
The conductor walked off the podium and there was a bit of silence before the orchestra proceeded with the tuning ceremony. Our conductor walked back out, again to applause, but this time with no mic, gave a quick bow, and assumed his position before the audience had even finished. 
As if thinking not one second more before jumping off a cliff, the piece began. I’ve listened perhaps only once (maybe twice) to this piece in full. It is, as you may know, enormous. 
Again, I won’t be talking about the piece itself now, because we’re a long way away from getting around to Bruckner 8, but I will talk about my relationship with Bruckner, or my viewpoints toward his music. 
It’s hard. I listened to Beethoven’s ninth a few days before this concert. We have another Bruckner symphony lined up for a few weeks from now, and there’s that whole thing about Bruckner’s fascination with the structure and layout and everything about the Choral symphony, so I figured I’d give it a try. I was not in my ideal listening space and focusing on other things, but the piece just. felt. so. long. Something like Mahler’s third (or second or seventh or ninth) seem to whiz by, but the Beethoven seemed very slow going. But that’s a different point. 
Bruckner’s music has historically been more difficult for me to warm up to, but a light bulb finally went off with the fourth, and although it isn’t a symphony I think of often or decide to listen to casually, when I do, it is quite nice.
It’s one of those concerts that I wouldn’t miss. I was excited to attend, and glad to be sitting in my seat, but I was not nearly as giddy with excitement for the season opener, the Mahler 9. The Bruckner just isn’t a piece I have such a strong emotional connection to. My unfamiliarity with it and its epic scale mean that I’m not really in any position to talk about the performance or interpretation or anything like that.
I had a friend sitting on the ground floor, seven rows from the stage, and he said his ears were still ringing after the performance. From my perch in the balcony, I could see just how big a symphony this is. It was set up with the eight double basses at the very center and rear of the stage, and to their right were the Wagner tubas and horns. Lots of brass. Perhaps the most noticeable thing about some areas of the performance were actually the Wagner tubas and horns. They seemed… off their game, a bit challenged. Wagner tubas I can understand; it’s a more oddball instrument and Weingartner’s Wagner tubas didn’t have enough experience for the premiere. The horns, though, had some difficulty, it seems. I was just talking to the seventh-row friend a few days ago about how they’ve always been 100% on-point. I went to a performance of Mahler 4 by a local (amateur? -ish) orchestra a year or two ago, and their horns destroyed the performance, botched every exposed line they had. In any case, there were some hairier moments with them than I’ve ever heard from this ensemble.
That aside, I will also say that this is my first live Bruckner experience, and I must say that recordings, I think even watching concerts on YouTube, are deceiving. There is so much going on in the orchestra at any given time, and balance and fluidity and coherence seemed mind-blowingly difficult when watching these performers and the conductor work together to present this music.
Recordings sound polished and balanced and big and warm. Hearing Bruckner live made me think of the Chicago Symphony recordings under Solti with their famous brass section. One of the things that seems to be such a defining characteristic of Bruckner’s music is his orchestration, in big, heavy, rich sections, mountains of sound, and these sound perfectly smooth and together and homogenous, when in reality, watching the dozens of people it takes to make that sound, you realize how difficult it is to produce that Bruckner-esque timbre from a recording like Chailly’s. I felt like I instantly understood this music better, and even if I couldn’t (or can’t) express effectively in words what it is that makes it so much more complex than I thought, I can at least feel it.
Even from the simplest, most straightforward of places, you can’t not be moved by some swelling places in a piece like this, whether it be the low roar of basses that grows to a searing tutti, or some of the delicate, almost-classical era string passages. There’s just a ton of music in this music, and perhaps the biggest challenge is fitting (or rather organizing) it all in my head. I’d need a few more passes at it to start to digest it all in context of itself, but I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to see it, so… Thank you, NSO, for a fantastic season. I look very forward to Fidelio as well as the announcement of the next season’s program (in a newly renovated [or at least spruced-up] concert hall). See you then.
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