On Thursday night, I attended church. My church is Disney Hall, and my religion on Thursday night was the Symphony No. 8 in C minor by Anton Bruckner — a fitting composer because Bruckner was a very religious and pious person whose symphonies were often musical offerings to his gods, either the supernatural variety or the more corporal Wagner.
The Bruckner Eighth Symphony is not for the faint of heart or for those who can’t sit still for longer than a half hour. At a running time of about 80 minutes depending on the interpretation, the symphony demands not only the ability to sit still for a long period of time, but also the ability to concentrate on the complexities of the music, both of which are certainly easier to do if one is familiar with the piece. However, if one is not familiar with the symphony, hearing it performed live by a world-class orchestra conducted by a venerable conductor in an outstanding hall may be the best introduction.
And that is what the audience at Disney Hall got on Thursday night.
Bruckner struggled for acceptance for most of his career as a composer until his Seventh Symphony, which was an immediate hit. However, even though the Seventh symphony was relatively long at the time, it probably did not prepare audiences for the even longer and more demanding Eighth. Moreover, as he did with many of his earlier symphonies, Bruckner revised the Eighth in response to suggestions by conductors at the time, and various musicologists published their own editions of the symphony such that no two recordings or performances are likely to be exactly the same.
As a symphonist, Bruckner was unique, combining the classicalism of Beethoven with the romantic idealism, and large-scale orchestra, of Wagner and his abilities as an organist. Although in his lifetime, Bruckner was in demand all across Europe as a noted organist, he did not write large-scale works for the organ, unless one considers his symphonies. As with Cesar Frank, another composer who was also a noted organist, one can hear distinct organ writing in Bruckner’s symphonies. For example, he frequently has different sections of the orchestra play tutti (all together), and the woodwind choirs, a staple of Bruckner symphonies, often resemble the sound of an organ.
For this series of performances, Maazel arranged the orchestra differently than he did for his performances last week of Strauss and Sibelius. Instead of splitting the first and second violins, Maazel grouped them together on the left side of the stage and grouped the violas, cellos, and double basses on the right side. Because the score calls for four Wagner tubas in addition to four horns, Maazal had the Wagner tubas situated behind and to the left of the horns. Those in the audience sitting in seats elevated above the stage especially were treated to frequent forte passages of blaring brass from the horns, Wagner tubas, trumpets, and trombones. Despite these passages, however, Maazel never allowed the brass to overpower the strings, not an easy feat.
A symphony as long and complex as the Bruckner Eighth offers many opportunities for a conductor to put his or her mark on its interpretation, and Maazel certainly took advantage of it. For example, Maazel began the first movement (Allegro moderato) louder than the pianissimo marked in the score. And even though the Trio section of the second movement (Scherzo) is marked Langsam (slowly), Maazel played it more like an andante. However, this strategy gave him to the opportunity to exaggerate a ritardando (not marked) toward the end of the first section before the main theme repeats when the strings transition to the woodwinds.
The Bruckner Eighth gave every member of the orchestra an opportunity to show off his or her musical prowess, and Maazel crafted the music to his liking, as is his style. Fortunately, it was to the audience’s liking too.
When the concert concluded and the audience rose to their feet, Maazel showed his respect and appreciation for the L.A. Phil, as he did last weekend, by standing to the side and applauding the orchestra. Some members of the orchestra applauded Maazel.
The combination of Maazel, the L.A Phil, and the visually and acoustically aesthetic Disney Hall contributed to a true religious experience for the Brucknerds in the audience.
The final performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony by Maazel and the L.A. Phil will take place Sunday, Jan. 24, at 2 p.m. in Disney Hall.