Segal, orchestra impress in Bruckner symphony
by ANDREW ADLER
Bruckner's symphonies present unique challenges for conductors and orchestras alike. It's not simply that these works are vast — so are various symphonies by Brahms, Schubert, Mahler and any number of others — but that they are organized so as to easily upend the best-intended interpreters.
Blocklike in much of their design (Bruckner's scores are often compared to organ music in their shared great waves of sound), the symphonies express themselves with a vocabulary all their own.
This week at the Kentucky Center, Uriel Segal and the Louisville Orchestra are performing one of Bruckner's most popular works: the Symphony No. 7 in E Major. In this context, however, "popular" is a relative term, because many listeners deem Bruckner's symphonies as unapproachably dense and oblique.
Personally, I find them to be among the profoundest creations in all music.
While Symphony No. 7 lacks the scope of the Eighth or the overt drama of the unfinished Ninth, it's still a mighty thing to behold.
Yesterday Segal and the orchestra managed to wrap a fair degree of their collective arms around the piece. From the outset a listener had to make several allowances, particularly string contingents that suggested, but seldom communicated, the full range of intrinsic sonorities Bruckner aimed for. And in certain matters of technical facility, such as the playing of selected brass choirs (the quartet of Wagner tubas, for example), one wished for more elegance and fewer smudged phrases.
Yet despite whatever shortcomings emerged during yesterday's U.S. Bank Coffee Concert, the total account was undeniably impressive. Tending to each of the Seventh's myriad components, Segal opened a window to what makes Bruckner so remarkable. The symphonies may be secular works, but they possess a devotional quality that rendered Whitney Hall — for around an hour — into a kind of cathedral.
Listening to Bruckner's mature symphonies, including the Seventh, is a fascinating experience. Yesterday that fascination began with the opening measures, one of the composer's characteristic soft string tremolos that seem to hover in some unknowable region. Then came the first sweeping melody, anchored in the cellos and rising up in glorious affirmation.
From here the reading gained weight and heft, though happily it was heft without inflated musical rhetoric. Segal allowed the first movement to unfold in appropriate spaciousness, handling most of the thorny transitions so that tempo shifts weren't abrupt. Only occasionally did players have to scurry to keep crisp ensemble.
The extraordinary Adagio, cast in part as a memorial to Wagner and full of sonority, gathered itself in an expression of power ranging from quiet to explosive. Giving way to a blazing scherzo and a finale that was both unmannered and inexorable, the entire performance didn't just entertain, it mattered.
Earlier yesterday, Eli Eban was the guest soloist in Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, K. 622. Playing with laudable style and well-projected, creamy tone, he spun out phrase after phrase with ample breath and nuanced articulation. This may have been a standard concerto, but there was nothing generic about how Eban or the orchestra approached their challenging assignments.