Anton Bruckner’s symphonies are often compared to Gothic cathedrals: great ponderous, airy massive towers of hewn rock. They call for enormous orchestras, thick with brass and winds. The last thing you expect to see at an all-Bruckner concert is an empty stage.
But Christoph Eschenbach walked out alone on the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage Thursday night facing an array of slightly disarranged chairs and music stands. He raised his hands to a small, dark-clad chorus above him, arranged in two rows before and around the organ. And they made music: soft, burnished lines, meshing and intertwining, chords gently cradled in the singers’ voices.
The chorus was the University of Maryland Chamber Singers, with these shining voices, and they sang four Bruckner motets, two earlier and almost callow (“Locus iste” and “Ave Maria”), two later and more intricate (“Christus factus est” and “Virga Jesse”). It was a wonderful way to underline the singing, melodious, gentle side of a composer too often stereotyped as craggy and slightly awkward.
And the soft radiance of the motets carried over into the main event, a symphony not usually thought of as either soft or radiant: the Eighth Symphony, clocking in, on Thursday, at 1 hour and 27 minutes.
There are some superficial similarities between Eschenbach and Bruckner. Both are men whose particular visions are slightly off the beaten track of what is expected in their respective fields. Both struggle with expression, aiming impossibly high, seeming to make things harder for themselves, not always quite trusting themselves. Both have high expectations of music as a spiritual experience. Eschenbach certainly has cherished an affinity for Bruckner, and he conducted this whole symphony — a pinnacle of the repertory, a massive undertaking that the National Symphony Orchestra had only essayed once before in its history — from memory, without benefit of a score.
Seven members of the orchestra bid a formal farewell to the NSO on Thursday, and having talked to nearly all of them in the past couple of days, I tried, on this evening, to experience Eschenbach through their ears and eyes. They offered seemingly contradictory pictures of a musician they variously described as warm, distant, intensely focused on the moment, balancing spontaneity with a number of strong ideas about how music should be played.
In the Bruckner Eighth, there’s enough time to experience all of a musician’s facets without having to see them as contradictory: to understand how a laser focus can be combined with a seeming inattention to details that leaves the music seeming blurry in some places (the Scherzo lost its crispness), or chords sounding a little raucous and unbalanced, dragged down by too much brass (in, for instance, the long third-movement Adagio).
But Eschenbach’s vision for the piece remained fairly clear. This Bruckner was a big, soft, loving embrace that never grew too harsh or grating. Even the Scherzo was soft, its jagged edges smoothed away, its central trio emerging out of a garnish of harp notes like a dream sequence, otherworldly and wistfully colorful. It was music of gentle details — a solo flute line descending like a snowflake in the Adagio, its pace irregular as a footfall — and of extremes that grew out of each other organically (like so much of Eschenbach’s music), so that the soft passages imply the loud ones, and the silences, even at the end of the usually brash Scherzo, bristle more aggressively than the notes.
The program is a decisive farewell to the regular season. Artistically, its message was not furthered by the ceremonial interruption of the recognition of the seven departing members, who were brought on stage and presented with engraved paperweights in Tiffany boxes — with the requisite signed photo of the whole orchestra to be given afterward.
But artistic rigor, and artistic excellence, sometimes needs to take a back seat to humanity. Indeed, this sums up Eschenbach’s whole musical approach.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday nights.