Christian Thielemann, conductor
Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 8 in C Minor (Edition Haas)
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, California
March 9, 2023
Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony was presented at Zellerbach Hall on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley last Thursday evening, during an uncommonly intense northern Californian rain storm. Conducting the Vienna Philharmonic was the well-known and somewhat controversial conductor, Christian Thielemann. The concert hall, which holds just under 2,000 people, was nearly — if not completely — filled with people who had braved the ice-cold winds and pelting rain to witness the last of three performances at this venue by the orchestra before it heads back to Europe. Judging by the intense applause, howls of approval, and two standing ovations, just about everyone else enjoyed it as much as I did.
As to be expected, the audience was mostly white and middle-aged or older, with a smattering of Asians of various types in the mix. There was, however, a surprisingly large number of young people in attendance, which was a heartening sight for any fan of, shall we say, unpopular music. Not only had these youngsters turned off their “lo-fi hip-hop beats to study and relax to,” put down their phones, and ventured out into the elements, but they had done so in order to hear truly great art — and great, indisputably white art at that.
Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, the last he completed, is not easy listening. It is an intense 80 or so minutes of waves of emotion: contemplative string movements building to martial, heroic, ear-splitting brass explosions, back down and back up again, keeping the listener gripped in an exquisite emotional tension. The Viennese maintained Bruckner’s undulating spirit beautifully under Thielemann’s baton: the tempi were always appropriate, the heroism was always heroic, and the existential gravity suitably grave. The musicians seemed less like “orchestra and conductor” and more like a solitary organism whose entire existence was meant to express Bruckner’s soul to the world. Indeed, it often seemed as though the symphony were being performed on an especially magnificent pipe organ. It is no coincidence that Bruckner was an organist himself — his music often reflects this fact — but rarely have I heard an orchestra sound so unified in both technique and spirit. It was the kind of performance that makes a man want to trash his audio equipment and never listen to anything but live music ever again. From the musical virtuosity to the transcendent interpretation, every moment was a gift, a truly unforgettable musical event.
Though I have yet to hear any of Thielemann’s recent Bruckner cycle that he recorded for Sony Classical, I will now eagerly seek it out and, if what I heard in Berkeley is indicative of their quality, I expect to be able to recommend them without hesitation to anyone who had the misfortune of being unable to attend any of his and the orchestra’s (far too geographically limited) American tour.
A friend once told me that in any great Bruckner performance, one should be able to hear God. Thanks to Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic, on March 9, 2023, I most certainly did.
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