Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Bruckner's 8th Symphony

If I had to pick my one favorite piece of music, it might easily be Bruckner's 8th. I first heard the piece when I was 18 - I had just moved to New York to attend Columbia University and Juilliard. There was an audition for the Juilliard orchestras, and one of the excerpts was from the third movement of Bruckner's 8th. I didn't know yet that I wouldn't be allowed to play in, or audition for, Juilliard's orchestras - that was one of the main reasons I left New York after just one semester! For the time being, though, I was preparing diligently for this audition.

I went to Columbia's listening library one day around lunch time, thinking I'd quickly find the excerpt, listen to it a couple of times, then pop over to the dining hall. What I didn't realize was that the third movement of Bruckner's 8th is the longest slow movement ever written, usually lasting nearly half an hour. The excerpt was nowhere near the beginning, either, so with no measure or rehearsal numbers to guide me, I settled in to listen to the whole movement.

By the time it ended, I was completely spellbound by the beauty of that music - I realized I had completely forgotten to find the excerpt. So I listened to it again. Then I listened to the symphony straight through in its entirety. Twice. I think the librarian had to kick me out around 5.

It's wonderful to have a piece of music that moves you so powerfully. Unfortunately I rarely find time to listen through the whole 90-minute symphony, though, or even that monumental slow movement! I've only heard it performed live once, with David Zinman conducting the Baltimore Symphony, which was quite thrilling.

Another performance I remember fondly was on television the summer I was at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Germany. Lorin Maazel was conducting the Munich Philharmonic in a huge cathedral. There is a passage in the third movement that (like so many passages in Bruckner!) returns obsessively: the whole orchestra seems to climb out from a state of unrelievable tension and dissolve into a celestial harp shimmer. Each time the orchestra played this, the camera would pan up to the ceiling of the cathedral, as if God Himself were creating the music. I guess sometimes it can seem that way.

I wonder occasionally at all the things I've chosen to give up in order to play in an orchestra - like dropping out of that Columbia/Juilliard program. Then I listen to a piece like Bruckner's 8th, or play in a great orchestra, and all those sacrifices don't seem so crazy any more. Today was our first New World Symphony rehearsal, and so things were a little rough. Still, the memory that sticks with me is looking around while we were reading the first movement of Brahms 3rd, and seeing this amazing sense of giddiness in everyone. We were like a bunch of little kids playing after the first thick snowfall - "wow, it's been a while." I wouldn't trade that for anything.


Lydia Si-Ngaw Lui said...

I think it is extremely important to remember why we choose what we do with our lives. Remembering those surreal moments make life worth living. It seems that each person has a different kind of experience, but all experiences are alike in that they tug on the heartstrings of the person in a way no other experience could do. In my case, Mahler 4 and La Boheme affect me exceedingly.

On a completely different note (of personal nature) I wanted to comment regarding Nicholas Lemann- who wrote an article on New Orleans for the New Yorker. I have taught his nephew violin for the last 2 years, and have actually given a lesson under the observation of his grandparents(the parents of author). They were very warm people, and of course showed great enthusiasm for little Spencer Pulitzer (yes, that Pulitzer)-Lemann's scales and Twinkle variations.

Matt Heller said...

Lydia - Thanks for your comments! It's nice that I'm not the only one who gets excited about knowing someone who knows someone who writes for The New Yorker. Apparently the grandparents were in New Orleans but made it out okay (Lemann's interview is here), so maybe they'll be back for more Twinkle soon.

I have a recording of the 2002 TMC performance of Mahler 4, with James Conlon, which is good for a nostalgic heartstring-tug every once in a while - let me know if you'd like a copy.

Lydia Si-Ngaw Lui said...

Thanks! I have that same copy from TMC that I pull out once in a while. It's amazing how a piece of music (or performance)can invoke distant memories that you thought you'd forgotten. We think our minds are so strong, but it's unbelieveable how much we lose.

Gretchen said...

While listening to Bruckner's Eight I Googled it and found your comments about your first experience with the symphony. I had the same emotions this summer when I heard the NY Philharmonic perform it under Loren Maazel. I came right home and ordered the CD on amazon.com. (Thank God for computers!) The piece comes close to making me feel the way I did when I heard Mahler's Third at Tanglewood a number of years ago and wrote this about that experience:


Ozawa’s mighty arms spread
a symphony across the lawn.
In waves, notes float out
from Shed light to heavy pines.
The Mahler melts and drips on me
like collected rain from maple
leaves after a passed storm,
and I lift my face to be washed.
Brass broader than the Berkshires
surrounds my blanket. I absorb it
through my pores, swallow passages
whole, inhale great gulps of notes deep
to a place where they grow and expand
like a balloon inside me that finally explodes,
and I become little pieces of light
that hang in the sky above the hills.

Thank you for your right-on comments!