NSO’s Bruckner 7

featuring Wen-Sinn Yang, cello

The NSO finished their concert season two years ago, in the spring of 2015, with Bruckner’s eighth symphony, a monumental work with which I was unfortunately not familiar enough to appreciate in full at the time. I hadn’t really come to appreciate Bruckner at the time, maybe not even really Mahler… much. (Last year’s final concert program was the result of a schedule change.)

The NSO is again ending their concert season this year with Bruckner, but we’ll get there in a moment. I also feel like it’s been some time since we’ve seen our own maestro.

First on the program is a piece we heard not too long ago, and which, perhaps unfortunately for the NSO, was recently-ish performed by the astounding Oslo Philharmonic, with Truls Mørk as soloist, Elgar’s cello concerto. Now only a few short months later, we have our own local ensemble playing it, with Wen-Sinn Yang as soloist.

Someone expressed to me recently, and I can’t decide if I agree or not, that Elgar’s cello concerto is to the cello repertoire what Mendelssohn’s violin concerto is to the violin repertoire: “It doesn’t take much to make it sound good.” I favor Elgar’s cello work far, far more than Mendelssohn’s famous violin piece, but I do understand the sentiment.

It’s a work of extreme power, intimate, personal expression, but also in a universal language. Maybe it’s just that I was anticipating the Bruckner on the program, but this evening’s reading of the Elgar sounded very German to me. 呂紹嘉 (Maestro Lu) conducted without a baton, and the work was fantastic heard this way, not as English, but you can’t miss those rolling hills and think of Elgar’s surroundings and post-war England. A raw performance that earned immediate, uproarious applause.

I said above “perhaps unfortunately for the NSO,” but there was nothing lacking in their performance. Oslo’s reading, and the recording from which I came to know the piece (one of two recordings with Steven Isserlis, one gut strings, one metal), are both introspective, spiritual, solid but crystal-clear transparent, and this reading, at least for me, felt more outwardly dramatic, expressive more of the tragedy and strife in the work. Therefore, when the adagio came around, it was sublimely serene, spiritual, even, and the finale deeply stirring. Yang played beautifully, and they encored that third movement in a somehow yet more intimate take.

And then, after the intermission, with the soloist for the first half having joined the ensemble for the second, we get the Bruckner that closes this season, his seventh.

I’ll mention here that Bruckner still hasn’t had his day in Taiwan. He’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, obviously, and it took me some time to warm up to what he had to say, but Taiwanese audiences still haven’t gotten there. While there’s a relatively strong, healthy classical music culture here, it is generally far from adventurous, sticking to only the most famous works and performers, as a result being generally quite safe and even a bit close-minded as music tastes go, I dare to say. The top floor of the concert hall wasn’t even on sale for this concert. As a result, the first two were mostly full, but Bruckner is still a challenge to program here. Almost two years ago when the Munich Philharmonic was here with Gergiev, they gave an astounding reading of Bruckner’s fourth, and after every movement, there would be a handful of people walking out. Sigh.

But tonight, we got the seventh. Typical of Bruckner, it’s a big one, at around 70 minutes and then some. The first two enormous movements alone make up more than the length of a large number of symphonies, and indeed, there were a few attempted claps (granted, only one or two) after the second movement. Did you not look at the program?

This is not the time for analysis or introduction (we still have three more symphonies to get to before we address the seventh), but it’s the first of his undeniably great symphonies, the last three he wrote. Noticeably, there’s lots of brass on stage, three trombones, four horns, four Wagner tubas, one normal tuba, four (ish) trumpets, and then a generous compliment of strings. But in spite of that, the piece begins lightly, subtly.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t stay that way.

Musically speaking, I ‘grew up’ on Mahler. He was one of the first symphonists whose music really captivated me, along with Beethoven and Schubert. I was much later in coming with Bruckner, mostly because I compared him to Mahler, having always heard their names associated with one another. I’m sure there are plenty people who’d criticize me for trying to describe it this way, but Bruckner is like… the introverted Mahler, the philosophical one. By introverted, I don’t mean ‘shy’ or ‘quiet.’ That’s an incorrect use of the term. I mean inward-focused, gaining its energy from inside and propelling outward. There’s a spiritual, deeply thought provoking nature to Bruckner’s music, and it can be just abrupt as Mahler in its sudden turns from roaring, eyebrow-searing brass to flute solo with violins at ppp.

I mention all of that to say that the NSO hit all of these sentiments. I have always had the impression that this is the music that sits most comfortably in our Maestro’s hands: Mahler, Bruckner; he did Gurre-Lieder a few years ago. Heady German, mightily Romantic, powerful stuff, and like that now-oh-so-cliche ‘it’s like a cathedral’ statement about Bruckner’s music, it is an enormous structure, with details large and small, but let’s think of it as an enormous tree, with deep, strong roots grasping the soil, a thick, unmovable trunk supporting branches that sprawl out in every direction, and on these, fine, delicate leaves. That’s the massive structure Bruckner creates, and you experience its growth. That takes something to pull off well, and tonight, during the NSO’s reading, i shed a tear or two during the adagio, for Wagner, or myself, or Bruckner, or life.

This is music that makes you feel small, music to be in awe of, to see so much more than any big picture, and after the enormous, elegiac second movement, with that one cymbal crash, the commanding scherzo was an entirely different, exquisitely executed atmosphere, completely in step with the vision of the entire piece, the beginning of the finale put a name in my mind from the first bars: Charles Ives. It was quaint, expressive, pastoral, even, but also full of its own thunder.

It’s really kind of a spiritual experience. I got invitations to go grab a bite to eat after the concert, but said I needed to come home, and that I was a bit tired. In reality, it was more like “I need to finish thinking about my own existence, digest everything that just happened to me.” You’d understand it if you’d been there.

Wagner tubas! What a beautiful sound.

I’d been looking forward to this concert for some time, and I know I say that about a lot of them, but it’s really true with this one. It’s also a little bittersweet. We’re at the end of the concert season now. Yes, there’s a TSO concert left for next week, and the NSO’s opera coming up next month, as well as a few other things here and there, but it’s going to be another three months (give or take) before we see our NSO back in our wonderful concert hall, where I think I might change my preferred seat, mostly due to maddening fellow concert-goers.

Well, that’s all for now, and I hope the NSO’s concert tonight did at least a little something to improve Bruckner’s reputation on this island. It was a sublime performance; if there’s still any problem among the attendees, it lies with them, not the interpretation or performance.

See you soon.

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