Friday, March 29, 2024

“Bruckner Birthday Brilliance” at Santa Clarita

Bruckner in 1889: portrait in oils by Ferry Bératon.


Bruckner, celebrating 200 years: Santa Clarita Master Chorale, Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center

This year marks the bicentenary (on September 4, to be exact) of the birth of the great Austrian symphonist Anton Bruckner, and so in southern California we keenly look forward to a plethora of performances of his works. Sorry… just kidding. There seems to be not a note of Bruckner, for example, in the LA Philharmonic’s 2024-2025 season (though that still finds space for yet another *yawn* "Mahler Grooves Festival"). All of which leaves just the Long Beach Symphony to fly Bruckner's symphonic flag in this part of the world, with its keenly awaited perfomance of Symphony No. 4 on June 1.

Given this, one might expect even less attention to Bruckner's choral works, were it not that Artistic Director Allan Robert Petker (left) and his hugely enterprising Santa Clarita Master Chorale have already—on Saturday, March 16, in the snug main auditorium of Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center—done the master of Linz and St. Florian proud, and not just with a token inclusion of one piece in an otherwise mixed program, but an entire evening devoted to him—“Bruckner Birthday Brilliance” indeed.

This was an object-lesson in making the most of limited resources. Petker met head on the challenge of presenting Bruckner’s choral output at its most attention-grabbing by opening with his Te Deum in C major WAB 45, drafted while finalizing his Sixth Symphony (1879-1881) but only completed in 1884 after the Seventh Symphony (1881-1883) was finished, making it the sole large-scale choral/orchestral work from Bruckner’s symphonic maturity.

The Te Deum is scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists, chorus, a normally-constituted but still large symphony orchestra, and organ (ad lib). Constrained by financial, logistical, and voice/instrument balance concerns, Mr. Petker presented the work with a very small band of just 10 string players, the full specified wind section of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, a single pair of horns and no other brass, and timpani.

But even with such reduced forces, the elemental power of Bruckner’s fortissimo opening—a falling ostinato on strings against a sustained chord in all the winds—still had remarkable impact in the relatively small hall. Similarly, when in the second measure the 60-strong chorus fervently seized their opening on one of the few straightforwardly simple unisons in the whole work, one barely registered the absence of trumpets, trombones and tuba. Already it was clear that this approach was viable.

The first page of Bruckner's manuscript of his Te Deum.
If I had any quibble about the performance of the Te Deum, it concerned the solo parts. The work is divided into five sections wherein the soprano, alto and tenor sing briefly as a trio in I; in II and IV the tenor takes the lead before the other three join in; III is for chorus only; and in V all four again contribute. Despite each section being headed with the first few words of its text, and having concluding double bar lines, the way each ends shows clearly that Bruckner intended the work to be essentially continuous.

In this performance, instead of the same four soloists throughout, the joy was spread by changing the team for each section, so that overall three sopranos, two altos, two tenors and two basses were featured. Though the changeovers—with each team retreating back to the choir ranks and the next coming forward—were carried out quickly and efficiently, there were inevitable breaks in that continuity, with the shortest sections, II and III, in particular seeming over almost as soon as they had begun, with their conclusions left hanging.

Apart from this one cavil, the performance of the Te Deum was confident and cogent, with the choir equally projecting Bruckner’s great climaxes forcefully and getting to grips with his often complex counterpoint and unpredictable harmonic shifts; as ever, the quotations from the Seventh Symphony’s Adagio in the final In te, Domine, speravi section were strikingly eloquent.

Bruckner in 1854.
The remainder of the first half comprised three of Bruckner’s unaccompanied motets, but in addition took on something of the character of a genial lecture-recital. Before each motet, choir soprano and program annotator Brenda Hunten came forward to deliver brief accounts of milestones and domestic episodes in his (sometimes quirky) personal life, and then Maestro Petker talked about the composer's artistic development and specifically the piece to follow. First of the three motets to be sung was the brief but rapturously beautiful Locus iste, WAB 23 (1869) with its echoes of Mozart’s Ave verum corpus.

Next was Ave Maria, of which Bruckner composed three settings, all in the key of F major. The first (WAB 5), dating from 1856 and scored for two soloists, chorus, cello, and organ, shows him not yet arrived at his full individuality, while the last of the three (WAB 7), though written in 1882 and full of harmonies and progressions that characterize Bruckner’s mature style, is for a single alto voice with organ. Thus for this concert the second setting, WAB 6, written in 1861 for seven-part choir, selected itself, and in its limpid serenity maintained the mood established by the Locus iste. Last, but far from least, came the somewhat longer and more grandly contemplative Os justi, WAB 30 (1879).

Bruckner in 1868.
In the second half Maestro Petker and the Santa Clarita Master Chorale presented a single work, Bruckner’s Mass No. 2 in E minor, WAB 27 (1866). He actually wrote four full Mass settings, but each of the other three—the Missa Solemnis in B-flat minor, WAB 29 (1854), the Mass No. 1 in D minor, WAB 26 (1864), and Mass No. 3 in F minor, WAB 28 (1868)—is scored for four soloists, chorus, orchestra, and organ.

Mass No. 2, however, utilizes eight-part mixed choir with no soloists, plus winds and brass only (2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets and 3 trombones). Bruckner composed it at the request of the Bishop of Linz for the dedication of a chapel in the city’s new cathedral, but revised it in 1869, 1876, and 1882: this final version is the one normally performed, as was the case here.

Bruckner's manuscript dedication of the Mass in E minor.
In the context of this program, the work's austere and timeless spirituality provided a far stronger expressive contrast to the jubilant Te Deum than any of the other Mass settings would have done, though similar logistical and audible balance factors also applied here. In the absence of brass instruments apart from the pair of horns, Petker’s solution was to rework the accompaniment for the strings and winds used in his account of the Te Deum.

While hard-line Bruckner purists would doubtless disapprove, in the fairly small Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center auditorium the performance had considerable conviction, aided by virtually vibrato-free playing from the strings. It would be idle to deny, though, that—particularly at the fastish speeds which the hall's quite dry acoustic prompted—some of the Mass in E minor’s intrinsic quasi-archaic grandeur was diminished.

All in all, this was a splendid showcase both for a skilled and committed choir and its imaginative Artistic Director, and an implicit finger-wag to other southern Californian performing bodies who, so far, seem to have shown no interest in celebrating the 200th anniversary of one who was not only one of the greatest 19th century symphonists but also a master composer for choral forces. 

The Santa Clarita Master Chorale at a previous concert in the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center.

Santa Clarita Master Chorale, Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center, Saturday March 16 2024, 7 p.m.
Images: The performers: Kimberly Ayers; Bruckner: Wikimedia Commons (1889), London Symphony Orchestra (1854), StadtMuseum, Linz (1868); Te Deum manuscript: IMSLP; Mass in E minor dedication: Wikimedia Commons.

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