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Music review: Pacific Symphony performs Bruckner's Ninth at Segerstrom Concert Hall

February 25, 2011 |  2:28 pm

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When people who pursue relentless entertainment are surveyed about classical music concerts, they often complain that the atmosphere is too reverential –- no eating, no drinking, no talking, no texting, no coming and going, too much suppression of the audience’s ego for a greater good. Desperate for their business, presenters and symphony orchestras have lately been experimenting with “friendly” formats.

The Pacific Symphony’s experimental “Unwound Series” hopes to help, but in an intelligent way, by  putting famous symphonic works into a broad historic context while making room for a little public communing on the side. In a striking reversal of trends on Thursday night, instead of welcoming the real world into the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, the orchestra did the churchly opposite for “Cathedrals of Sound: A Journey of the Spirit” (also Friday and Saturday).

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The occasion was a performance of Bruckner’s last and unfinished Symphony No. 9, conducted in an impressive spirit of awe by Carl St.Clair. The Ninth’s scope is clearly metaphysical. The composer -- a devout Catholic who was said to have lapsed into episodes of religious mania during his final days -- dedicated the score to “the beloved God.” 

Taking advantage of Segerstrom’s variable acoustics, St.Clair told those who stayed after the program for a conversation that the sound chambers were set for as much churchly reverberation as he could get away with. He also said he wanted to create a contemplative mood. After a stint on the 405, a listener needs to slow the body down, he said, to be in the proper state to receive Bruckner.

The enticement to shred cellphones and other distracting devices began with the Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael’s Abbey (in Orange County's Trabuco Canyon), who sang Latin chants in the lobby before the concert and continued inside the hall with a processional to begin the program and a recessional at the end.

Bruckner’s symphonies, masterfully constructed with building blocks of sound, are not always an easy sell in America (although they are not uncommon: Next week Gustavo Dudamel will conduct the composer's Seventh with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as will Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Chicago Symphony).

A little evangelism doesn’t hurt. Once the chants had ended, St.Clair walked on stage wearing a body mike and offered a short Bruckner sermon. “For Anton Bruckner, time begins at the end,” he said. “In Anton Bruckner, there is only Thy and Thee, not I.”

Bruckner was an organist who apparently approached the keyboard in a state of religious zeal, and Paul Jacobs was on hand to illustrate St.Clair’s talk with organ transcriptions of excerpts from the symphony. The organist then played, with clarity and grandeur, Bach’s glorious “St. Anne” Fugue, a triple fugue with likely religious symbolism.

That was not all in this nearly four-hour presentation. A pre-concert event hosted by the orchestra's artistic advisor Joseph Horowitz included actors portraying Bruckner’s life. For the post-concert talk, the few audience members who stayed were invited to share their thoughts and feelings.

Still, the main event was the 65-minute Bruckner Ninth. The orchestra is big –- triple winds, a slew of horns and four of those strange Wagner tubas. It begins with a grandiose first movement, calling forth through those cathedrals of sound from the orchestra's massed forces. The pulsating Scherzo presages Philip Glass, who started writing symphonies a hundred years after Bruckner began work on his Ninth in 1891, and St.Clair (who initiates a Glass festival at Segerstrom in two weeks) was here driving and exciting.

The Adagio, St.Clair said, was Bruckner’s last will and testament, his ultimate preparation for entering God’s kingdom. There are other interpretations. In “The Essence of Bruckner,” Robert Simpson calls the movement “the most torturous music Bruckner ever wrote,” and reminds us that the composer sketched out an enormous finale that he didn't live to complete.

The Pacific Symphony could sound a bit harsh in the loudest passages, but mainly this was an accomplished and beautiful performance, with the brass pretty much maintaining marathon form.

Oddly enough, the audience, however, seemed more accepting of Bruckner heard without rather than with incense. Those poor monks. They were drowned out in the lobby by conversations and the zapping noise of ushers swiping tickets with electronic gizmos.

Inside the hall, ugly, nervous coughing from the crowd punctuated the chants, while the audience sat transfixed for organ and orchestra. At the end of the symphony, St.Clair attempted a moment of silence. The lights went down. He waved at the audience not to applaud and cued the monks for a final bit of chant. Instead, the audience applauded and shouted bravos.

It was a better night for Bruckner than piety.

-- Mark Swed

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"Cathedrals of Sound," Pacific Symphony. Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $25 to $105. (714) 755-5799 or www.pacificsymphony.org.

Photo: Carl St.Clair with Norbertine Fathers and Paul Jacobs in the organ loft at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on Thursday night. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

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