Thursday, November 16, 2017

Brucknerian transcendence in a virtual cathedral


Carl St. Clair, Pacific Symphony, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra perform Bruckner's Eighth Symphony beneath visualizations by Nick and Clemens Prokop.
Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony at a London Royal Albert Hall Prom was the first “classical” concert that I ever attended, well over 50 years ago, when the symphonies of both Bruckner and Mahler were emerging at last from their predominantly mainland Europe concert presence to truly international recognition. Since then, Mahler has gone on to become one of the few composers – together with, say, Mozart, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff – that virtually ensure a full house. Bruckner, on the other hand… not so much. Aspects of his symphonies – non-romantic in any conventional sense, with protracted formal workings-out and orchestral textures that often feel austere and monolithic – seem to bore and even repel many listeners. These lengthy works can seem fractured and endless in unsympathetic hands, and his style as a whole resists easy absorption into the whirl of orchestral concert planning. 

All hail, therefore, to the Pacific Symphony and Carl St. Clair for not simply programming a Bruckner symphony, but attempting to tailor an audio-visual context to properly prepare the audience for the experience. For the subject of this "Cathedrals of Sound" presentation, they were canny in their choice of the Eighth Symphony, to most Bruckner devotees arguably the greatest of the lot and, along with the Fifth Symphony, one of the two that are so extensive that they normally fill an entire concert, so that the issue of which other work(s) to program them with does not arise.

The Norbertine Fathers perform in the foyer.
The first element of this conceptual framework was the standard Pacific Symphony concert preview by Alan Chapman, who interviewed Nick and Clemens Prokop, the German designers of the lighting and video installation that would accompany the performance itself. After this, patrons gathered in the main lobby where, grouped around a purpose-made light sculpture (above), 15 members of the Norbertine community of priests and seminarians at St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, CA, intoned a short sequence of Gregorian chant. In principle this was a wonderful idea, with the glistening surfaces of the lofty space providing a visually striking and audibly resonant backdrop, but sadly the atmosphere of timeless contemplation did not penetrate beyond the tight circle of standing listeners to quieten later arrivals entering the lobby behind. 

The next layer of acclimation to Bruckner’s world lay inside the hall where quiet organ music played by Christoph Bull accompanied audience seat-finding (but was I alone in finding the idea of using Bach, no less, as background to this mundane activity a bit at odds with the ethos of the evening?). Then, at last, with the audience in place and the hall lights lowered, the Norbertine Fathers re-entered, proceeding in stately single file down the aisles on each side of the hall, chanting as they came on stage to group in a semi-circle. 

Carl St. Clair introducing the Eighth Symphony.
Carl St. Clair then arrived, to deliver an eloquent, and indeed, heartfelt introduction to the symphony and its composer. He had been wanting to program this work for a long time, but only now felt ready for the challenge. He outlined Bruckner’s life from his humble Austrian peasant origins, his childhood as a choirboy at the nearby monastery of St. Florian and early mastery of the organ there (in the crypt beneath which, now known as the “Bruckner Organ”, he is buried), his long apprenticeship as a composer, his late success at the age of 60 with his Seventh Symphony, and then the unfortunate negative reaction by his collaborator, the conductor Hermann Levi, to the first version of the Eighth

Alongside this Mr. St. Clair gave due weight to Bruckner’s lifelong piety, illustrated by the Norbertine Fathers with a performance of his earliest surviving composition, a short Pange lingua written when he was only 11 years old. After some more Gregorian chant, Christoph Bull gave a couple of tasters of the symphony itself, the contrasting openings of the  Scherzo second movement and then that of the great ensuing Adagio. Finally, he played the St Anne fugue BWV552/2 from Bach’s German Organ Mass with its close, but apparently coincidental, similarity to the hymn-tune “O God our help in ages past”, after which the Norbertine Fathers exited the stage singing the hymn itself to close this long and largely successful exercise in scene-setting.

Christoph Bull.
If I have a criticism of Mr. St. Clair’s preparatory exposition, it was that he devoted little time to Bruckner’s progress as a symphonist per se, nor said very much about the musical structure of the Eighth Symphony itself. This was ironic because if his performance had one overriding virtue among many, it was structural cogency rather than any overt attempt to emphasize, through exaggeratedly slow tempi or interpretative point-making, the spiritual or cosmic vistas that this symphony can easily be felt to open up. Instead, it was a thought-through, architectonic interpretation that moved easefully from stage to stage of Bruckner’s symphonic argument, expressed through thoroughly-rehearsed orchestral playing that was often thrilling in its impact and accuracy. 

Anton Bruckner towards
the end of his life.
Mr. St. Clair’s urgent, purposeful account of the first movement made it seem the very opposite of prolix, and the towering central climax in particular, where Bruckner brings his two main themes together like armies clashing on a battlefield, was marvelously achieved. The solo flute left playing after this cuts off at its peak can rarely have sounded so inconsolable. Again and again the marvelous Segerstrom acoustic revealed inner details of Bruckner’s scoring that I’d never noticed before, and rarely have I enjoyed a Bruckner performance that so skillfully avoided any tendency to turgidity, even though at around 83 minutes total duration it was in fact not particularly fast overall. 

So what of the Prokops’ visual enhancements? On three screens above the orchestra a shifting slide-show largely concentrated on the exterior environment and then interior details of the St. Florian monastery for the first movement, while the propulsive, rising principal motif of the Scherzo, not a million miles from Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, introduced a long aerial tracking shot, soaring above the Austrian countryside across all three screens. Mr. St. Clair’s account of this movement, the longest and most discursive of all Bruckner’s scherzos, was notably fast and driven, and I did feel that the Trio section, where for the first time Bruckner introduced harps into a symphony, could have relaxed a little more. 

I confess that I barely noticed the visuals during the Adagio, its spacious serenity and then slow climb to the pinnacle of exaltation seeming, as ever, to stop time – though equally as ever, I felt the jolt from the loss of a short, soft, linking passage between two louder sections near the final climax, removed as they were by Leopold Nowak, editor of the edition most frequently played (as here), from the less scholarly rigorous but more sympathetically imaginative edition by his predecessor, Robert Haas. 

At the finale’s thunderous, timpani-pounding opening, the light and the images noticeably deepened to a Mordorish-red – not inappropriate at such a moment – while Bruckner’s recapitulation commenced beneath the powerful image of his face carved in stone, towering above the orchestra to virtually Mount Rushmore proportions on all of the three screens. Generally however, I felt that this obviously elaborate and presumably costly visual exercise did not justify itself in terms of enhancing the music. This mighty symphony simply doesn’t need any extra-musical help to make its full impact, particularly in a performance as masterly as this.

The Bruckner Organ in St. Florian.

Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday, November 9, 2017, 8 p.m.
Images: Bruckner: A. Huber, Vienna; Carl St. Clair, Norbertine Fathers, the performance: Nicholas Koon/Pacific Symphony; Christoph Bull: Courtesy Ian Erlich; Bruckner Organ.


Anonymous said...

You wrote: ¨...a thought-through, architectonic interpretation that moved easefully from stage to stage of Bruckner’s symphonic argument, expressed through thoroughly-rehearsed orchestral playing that was often thrilling in its impact and accuracy.¨

Did we attend the same set of performances? Perhaps you attended on a different night than me? (I attended Friday, Oct. 20.) While I commend most of the orchestra on their enthusiasm, some were clearly less enchanted by Bruckner -- especially in the strings, where I noticed some violinists, especially, looked like they would fall asleep mid-tremolo. I realize Bruckner is hard on the strings, but look alive up there.

Overall, the performance was uneven at best, sloppy at worst. Maestro St. Clair, for all his admirable passion on the podium, could have benefited from an additional few rehearsals. And a pot of coffee for the strings.

Anonymous said...

Correction: I attended the performance on Nov. 10. (Oct. 20 I was at Mahlerś 4th performed by the LA Philharmonic, a concert that achieved an entirely different level of success!)

David J Brown said...

As I noted at the foot of my review, I attended on Thursday, November 9.