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Glorious Bruckner at Strathmore

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s concert of Bruckner, Mozart, and Stucky may have sold few tickets at Meyerhoff Hall – but on Saturday, Strathmore Hall was reliably well filled, if not at capacity. Opening with Steven Stucky’s Anniversary Greeting (written for and premiered at the BSO’s 75th birthday celebration, now dug out for its 90th) the audience heard the music’s heat flickering, receding threateningly, and a quick, small, and fierce blaze. That’s about all there is to that composition, and that is also all one could jot down during the minute and a half that it lasts.

Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 3 in E-flat Major, K. 447, with the BSO’s own Philip Munds as soloist was next. Under guest conductor Günther Herbig (ex-East Berlin, -Detroit, -Toronto, now Saarbrücken) who is the quintessential Kapellmeister, most of the strings got to partake in a performance that was surprisingly lean and streamlined. For the quantity of players involved and given the last few bouts with Mozart, the BSO sounded pretty nimble and found itself by the third movement. It was, as far as the orchestra is concerned, much better than I remember the violin concerto played (Kraggerud/Ryan) last May and a bit better, too, than the recent piano concerto (Fleisher/Alsop). Fortunately we are not running out of Mozart concertos any time soon – so there is hope that the musicians will continue with them on a regular basis. They’d be a much improved orchestra at the end of the Mozart tunnel, with classical repertoire ‘cleaning the pipes’ of an orchestra on a too high-calorie diet of Romanticism, forcing them to be more flexible, adjust their style of playing from one moment to the next, and tip-toe around music with a sprightly gait whenever necessary. In fact, the first orchestra in the region to play consistently sublime Mozart could likely claim supremacy in the local, alleged “Battle of the Bands,” just for the effects it would have on non-Mozart repertoire. BSO principal horn Munds – a great horn player, although no virtuoso – meanwhile, played along nicely with his solo parts well executed to Maestro Herbig’s gentle speeds.

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Sy.9,
G.Wand / BPh

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Sy.9,
H.Blomstedt / Leipzig Gewandhaus

When Tim Smith opened his review of the same program on Friday with the caveat that a room of music lovers could be cleared out pretty quickly with the music of Bruckner, my first instinct was to wonder what kind of questionable acquaintances Baltimore’s music critic surrounds himself with. But while the sentiment he expressed is completely alien to me these days (I and most of my musical acquaintances worship Bruckner’s grand, honest, somber symphonies), it hasn’t always been that way for me. I vaguely remember my first concert to have been a Bruckner/Mozart matinee at the Bavarian State Opera (me, in my blue velvet suit, joyously sucking my thumb and being amazed how half the orchestra could go home [after the Bruckner] and continue to play such beautiful music). Still, I didn’t take to the music of St. Florian’s organist easily. I had recordings of his symphonies without any particular awareness of that fact – and listened to them with even less comprehension. Two CDs of his Eighth Symphony left so little an impression on me that I continued to buy successive recordings, because each time I forgot I had ever gotten one such in the first place. All that changed when I hit upon Günter Wand’s live recording of the 8th with the Berlin Philharmonic from his long Indian summer in the late 1990s and 2000. It was the long overdue epiphany, the beginning of a personal obsession with Bruckner in a way few other composers affect me. So I should remember how it was not to ‘get’ Bruckner. That I almost didn’t, anymore, says something about the power of Bruckner’s work.

Other Reviews:

John Henry Crosby, Bruckner in Baltimore (Ionarts, February 3)

Tim Smith, BSO gives Bruckner a break, with fine Symphony No. 9 (Baltimore Sun, February 4)

Tim Page, Bruckner's Ninth for Strathmore's First: The BSO's Perfect Gift (Washington Post, February 6)
Before the BSO’s performance under Herbig, I was nervous with anticipation. Just putting Bruckner on the program had me indebted to them, bound to love every note. At the same time, my standards would probably be higher, still, than in other repertoire. Thankfully, all such concerns and notions disappeared when the symphony got under way. With my notebook and pen tucked away, eyes closed, the BSO played so well and engaged that Bruckner’s 9th symphony was an hour-long smile on my face. Herbig led – I peeked a few times, after all – with the understatement of an old-school band leader; the very opposite of the type of Maestro who indulges in sweeping, grand, and majestic gestures which Bruckner would seem to invite. Idiomatic shortcomings or the occasional ensemble issues were negligible amid the overall quality of the performance. It was a night the BSO played itself into my heart.