For the second time in a decade, conductor Donald Runnicles and conductor Robert Spano will perform together in Symphony Hall, in a Mozart piano concerto. “I’m wondering how our rehearsals will go,” the Scottish-born Runnicles said recently, with a chuckle. “We’ll probably both be excessively deferential. After you, maestro. No, after you, maestro. No, after you, maestro. I’m sure there will be humorous situations in all this.”
Tonight, Friday and Saturday, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s two in-house conductors, Music Director Spano (at left) and Principal Guest Conductor Runnicles, will perform together in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, a work in heavy ASO rotation, with Runnicles on the podium. A few years ago, when the 2010-11 season was being planned, it looked like Runnicles’ last as principal guest. As a parting gift, they planned the Mozart D minor Concerto. Runnicles has since re-upped for at least one more season, but their schedules won’t mesh next year, so they decided to play it now anyway. (Photo above by J.D. Scott.)
The concert will open with Mark Grey’s “Ahsha,” another fanfare — the fourth of 10 — commissioned by the ASO this season. The Bay Area composer has several works before the public but is best known as John Adams’ “sound designer.” About “Ahsha,” Grey writes: “In celebration of Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles’ tenth-anniversary season in Atlanta, I wanted the subject of this work to embrace Robert’s passion for Persia, its people, culture and art. The ancient Avestan term Ahsha (also spelled Asha) has several meanings in the Zoroastrian faith, the first organized religion lasting in Persia until its massive conversion to Islam in the seventh century.”
But the work with the odds of leaving the biggest impression, according to local bookmakers, is Runnicles’ interpretation of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, which the conductor calls “a cathedral of sound.”
When performing Bruckner’s monumental — or architectural — symphonies, build up block by block from stone, the question is always “which edition?” In shorthand, it’s called “the Bruckner Problem.” As insecure as he was visionary, the composer allowed well-meaning colleagues to influence or literally alter small or large elements of his scores. In most cases, there exists no single performance version.
In the 20th century, two main musical editors, Robert Haas and Leopold Nowak, attempted to clean up the mess. At Bruckner’s death, there existed three versions of the Eighth Symphony, some with the composer’s original ideas, some with outside suggestions approved by him. Hass, the more imaginative, stitched together his chosen elements and, adding to the confusion, inserted a bit of music that he himself had composed. For the listener it holds supercharged emotions, and it is probably the “superior” piece of music, but even conductors who perform this version admit to its moral failings. (An enthusiastic Nazi, Haas’ reputation has been tainted on many levels.)
After World War II, Nowak, a more serious scholar albeit less musically inspired, created his own version, which has as its main virtue being the least problematic. (Years later, Nowak published yet another version, incorporating earlier sketches.)
But as Cleveland Orchestra librarian Ron Whitaker sums it up: “The various versions of his works involve all aspects of rewriting: recomposition, reorchestration, etc. And what we thought we knew of these versions is now proving to be incomplete, if not totally incorrect.”
So it’s up to individual conductors to pick which version, or hybrid of versions, they prefer. Runnicles goes with Nowak’s 1890 version of the Symphony No. 8. (He’s not uniform: last season, for Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, Runnicles picked Haas.)
“Bruckner, as a man, suffered emotionally and was brilliant at conveying those deepest feelings in his music,” Runnicles says. “Despite his absolute faith in God, there’s a great deal of suffering in this symphony. It’s about a man seeking answers. For me, too, Bruckner’s Eighth is a personal journey. Like anyone, I seek answers on the mysteries of life, I seek solace and inspiration. Bruckner offers always new insights.”
The heart of the Eighth Symphony is the 25-minute Adagio, “such a personal utterance,” the conductor calls it. “There’s a glimpse of the other side in this music, a portal. One is left with a glimpse of something that doesn’t quite exist in this world, then the portal closes.”
Nowak: Herbert von Karajan conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in a live 1957 performance. Taut and intense. On the now-defunct Andante label.
Haas: Jascha Horenstein conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in a live 1970 performance. This is morally corrupt bliss. On the BBC Music label.