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.