Some composers seem to kill box office sales, so presenters such as the Eastern Music Festival provide exposure for great works neglected during many orchestras' regular seasons. With its demands for extra players and special instruments as well as its length of nearly an hour and a half, Symphony No. 8, in C minor, WAB 108, by Anton Bruckner (1824-96) is a perfect example and choice.
The festival fields two full-sized student orchestras and can raid one for extra players by the other for special performances. The experience of hearing Bruckner's music within a resonant space is important and Guildford College's fine Dana Auditorium is close to ideal. This performance was led by resident conductor Grant Cooper.
Bruckner was a virtuoso organist before he took up composing late in life, around the age of forty. Before the successful premiere of his Symphony No. 7 on December 30, 1884, his works had been dismissed with harsh criticism. All of these early works are haunted by confusion of which performing edition to use. The composer's lack of confidence led him to give into pressure from advocates for cuts or rewrites. Symphony No. 8 suffers from this. Bruckner's revered proponent, Hermann Levi, objected to much of the original 1887 version so the composer made massive revisions. This 1890 version was finally premiered on December 18, 1892. There are two performing editions, the Leopold Nowak is the 1890 second version, while the Robert Haas edition restores cuts to reflect the original version. EMF music director Gerard Schwarz said this performance used the Haas edition.
Symphony No. 8 is in four extensive movements that explore and interweave numerous themes through multiple repetitions. Dynamics range from the most hushed ppp to massive, shattering waves of the whole orchestra at full throttle fff. The 15-minute opening Allegro moderato begins in quiet mystery before considerable reworking of the three themes that are resolved quietly.
The vigorous Scherzo. Allegro moderato is a dark-hued peasant Ländler over the course of its 15 or so minutes. The vast, monumental Adagio runs almost one half hour and is evocative of the composer's deeply held Catholicism. The virtuosic Finale Feierlich, nicht schell shuffles blocks of themes over 25 minutes culminating in triumphant uniting of the key four themes in a blaze of triumph.
Cooper kept his enthusiastic young musicians in the traces over the vast arch of Bruckner's four movements. The ensemble unity of the string choirs was superb. How the two violin sections held up over the long runs of sustained tremolos preceding another surge of sound! The cellos and violas produced full, rich sonorities. What a variety of pizzicatos they plucked! There were fine solos from the oboe and flute and strong characterization from the entire woodwinds. The brass produced great rising waves of sound upon which Bruckner's themes could "surf." Occasional slips in intonation did little to deflect from the sweep of the piece. The three harps made superb contributions. Extended horn solos and briefer solos by the concertmaster were excellent. Cooper brought out the rich variety of rhythms with no small help from the superb kettledrum player. This was a remarkable achievement for young musicians who brought it off within a standard professional rehearsal schedule. This was barely their second week at this wonderful summer festival now in its fifty-sixth year.
The Symphony No. 8 calls for 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, EIGHT horns consisting of 4 French horns and 4 Wagner tubas, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, kettledrums, and standard strings. What a sight it was when Cooper had the whole brass section stand!
Note: The festival program note for this concert, as indeed for the whole season, is extraordinarily well written. Their author is Catherine Keen Hock, a member of the staff of UNCG's Music Department.