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Published: Thursday, 5/10/2007

Symphony goes on a Bruckner adventure in Cathedral concert


If you're stuck for just the right Mother's Day gift, consider something beyond flowers, candy, a card, or dinner in a restaurant.

Consider a musical voyage aboard the S.S. Bruckner, a journey in which dark and quiet depths of sound are balanced by raging climaxes, brassy and forthright, in what many consider to be the ultimate orchestral composition.

It could be a gift Mom never forgets.

"Bruckner's Eighth Symphony is the zenith of symphonic writing," said the late Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, who loved to conduct works by the Austrian composer.

This time, the Bruckner adventure, a National City Bank special event of the Toledo Symphony set for 4 p.m. Sunday in Rosary Cathedral, will be led by Stefan Sanderling, the orchestra's principal conductor.

As Captain, Sanderling brings his own understanding of and respect for Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) and his remarkable compositions. Bruckner and Franz Schubert (1797-1828) are tied for first place in the German conductor's personal favorites list.

Like Schubert, "Bruckner is a very un-American composer," Sanderling said, adding, "America is very efficient. Bruckner is exactly the opposite. You have to allow time for the sentiment to become clear."

Indeed, to listen to a Bruckner symphony - the Eighth, in c minor, lasts well over an hour - is to experience musical sumptuousness at a heightened level.

No wonder the nine massively scaled, complex symphonies are often referred to as "cathedrals of sound."

And, like Rosary and cathedrals everywhere, the creation of each work took years of Bruckner's life. Born into a devout musical family in a village near Linz, the composer revealed musical talent early, first as a church organist, then a devoted student of composition. He found inspiration in works by Schubert first, then his contemporary, Richard Wagner, whose opera scores gave new meaning to the term, narrative composition.

Like Wagner, Bruckner spun his symphonies around stories from his life and others. Unlike the German composer, he never wrote for opera.

And unlike both the child prodigy, Schubert, and the youthful Wagner, Anton Bruckner, did not finish a major symphonic work until he was past age 40. Even then, he toiled in relative obscurity, earning a slim living by teaching and as organist.

"He didn't have success until age 60," notes Sanderling of the late-bloomer.

"Bruckner was a very humble and insecure person. He studied and studied and studied and studied counterpoint, did all these exercises - to excess - because he always thought he wasn't good enough."

Not until his seventh symphony drew critical and popular raves in December, 1884, did the composer begin to believe his music was equal to works by Schubert, Wagner, and other German greats including Beethoven and Brahms.

But even then, Bruckner's progress was stalled by his dependence on friends and advisers including the German conductor Hermann Levi, who had just introduced Symphony No. 7 in Berlin. Greatly depressed by the criticism, Bruckner spent the next five years on revisions.

This was not an unusual process, notes Sanderling. "Bruckner would constantly rewrite his pieces, shortening them as he went." In fact, music historians often disagree on which version of the composer's nine symphonies is the authoritative one.

When Symphony No. 7 was finally premiered in Vienna on Dec. 18, 1892, it received tremendous acclaim, even from Bruckner's harshest critics. He was still working on his final symphony when he died.

Tickets for the Toledo Symphony concert at 4 p.m. Sunday in Rosary Cathedral are $30 and can be ordered online at www.toledosymphony.com or 419-246-8000.

Contact Sally Vallongo at svallongo@theblade.com or 419-724-6101.

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