ArtsATL > Music > Review: Under guest conductor Donald Runnicles, the ASO deftly paints Bruckner’s sonic mural

Review: Under guest conductor Donald Runnicles, the ASO deftly paints Bruckner’s sonic mural

Principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles has a particular touch with the music of Bruckner. (Photo by Jeff Roffman.)

On Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed a concert of music by Anton Bruckner, led by ASO principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles, with soprano Melody Moore, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, tenor Nicky Spence and bass Raymond Aceto as vocal soloists. The concert will be repeated Saturday evening at Symphony Hall.

The all-Bruckner program offered up an expansive sonic mural of his late lifestyle and raised the question of what to do regarding a composer’s end-of-life creative intent.

The first and by far larger segment of the program was devoted to Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 — a work left unfinished at the time of his death. Although a mostly completed score for a fourth movement exists, along with additional musical sketches for it, it is most typically performed with only the three extant movements. While a fourth was intended, the three work together quite convincingly as a slow-fast-slow arching structure, the pace at which the outer movements develop requiring some patience for their unfolding.

All three are somewhat dark in demeanor; the middle Scherzo movement also feels somewhat menacing in its own outer sections, with the fleeter Trio, of sorts, in between taking on more varied temperaments. Although the example of Beethoven’s symphonies served as a kind of starting point for formal considerations, Bruckner’s works feel more massive in scope, and the differences in style and energy are easily apparent: Beethoven’s fortes hit you in the solar plexus; Bruckner’s are like being overwhelmed by an ocean wave. Runnicles has a special affinity for Bruckner’s music, and it shows most assuredly in this performance of the Ninth.

The last time the ASO performed Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 was in 2004, also with Runnicles conducting, but it concluded the program, preceded by Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with pianist Radu Lupu as soloist.

This time around, Bruckner’s “Te Deum” in C Major was companion to his Symphony No. 9. That is not uncommon, as it is a suggestion made by Bruckner himself as one way of providing his symphony with a fourth movement. This is the first time the ASO and its chorus have ever performed the work.

The “Te Deum” (“We praise Thee, O God”) is an expression of praise in regular use in the Catholic Church and more liturgically oriented Protestant denominations. The religiously devout Bruckner composed a lot of sacred choral music, including at least seven Masses, but considered his sole setting of the “Te Deum” to be the pride of his life.

Rather than immediately following the lengthy Symphony No. 9, the “Te Deum” was performed after an intermission when the ASO Chorus joined the orchestra on stage. In this instance, the vocal soloists — Moore, O’Connor, Spence and Aceto — were not positioned in front of the orchestra but behind them, immediately in front of the chorus. That’s not uncommon either: for example, that is the visible case with a brilliant 1978 performance by Wiener Philharmoniker und Singverein, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, in a video available on YouTube. And yet the soloists are well enough heard over the large orchestra.

Unlike the preceding Symphony, Bruckner does not take his time in unfolding the work. The orchestra opens at full-throttle volume, the chorus following with its own emphatic, unison fortissimo on the pickup to the third bar, doubled by the brass, through bar 11, at which point the strings drop down to a soft volume, with only upper strings, oboes and clarinets playing, to allow the soprano, mezzo and tenor soloists their introductions. Lower strings join in, and the chorus reenters pianissimo, but only for a brief phrase on the word “Sanctus” (“Holy”). Then the chorus and orchestra suddenly burst into fortissimo again to reiterate the sentiment loudly, rising even higher in volume to fff on the words, “Pleni sunt cæli et terra majestátis glóriæ tuæ” (“Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of Thy glory”) before reiterating the opening theme.

And that describes only the first two-and-a-half minutes of this work. If the third movement of Symphony No. 9 seemed longer than it was, Bruckner’s “Te Deum” at about 22 minutes in duration felt somewhat too brief by comparison, especially following an intermission of nearly identical length, as the entire second “half” of the program. By comparison, the Ninth Symphony runs just over an hour.

It was suggested by another listener, prior to the concert, that the intermission could have been eliminated, bringing directly to the fore the notion of the “Te Deum” serving as a final movement to the incomplete Symphony. However, there are several negatives to that. One is that the audience would have been required to sit in place for about 85 minutes straight through.

True enough that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is about 70 minutes in total length, with its final choral movement only a few minutes longer than Bruckner’s “Te Deum.” But as far as this listener is concerned, the parallel stops there. Too many people try to squeeze Bruckner’s Ninth and “Te Deum” onto the footprint of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Bruckner fully intended, and mostly composed, a final instrumental movement for his Ninth, only his late illness and death preventing its completion. It is perhaps both Bruckner’s fondness of his very successful “Te Deum” and his awareness that he would likely not live to complete his final symphony that led to the makeshift suggestion. It really doesn’t feel like it fits in that manner, at least to this listener. It does, however, stand admirably on its own as a follow-up piece. As such, Runnicles, soloists, chorus and orchestra gave it a credible, fulsome first outing before an ASO subscription audience.

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