Bruckner Writ Small? Handful Of Floridians Tap Into Heart Of 7th

Music director Michael Francis conducting the Florida Orchestra, only a small part of which will be onstage April 21-22 for performances of a chamber version of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. (Photo by JM Lennon)

ST. PETERSBURG, FL − Mention the name Anton Bruckner and you might expect crickets from friends and two-for-one tickets at the box office. Unless you’re in the big city, Bruckner is a tough sell, as his colossal, unhurried works require stamina on both sides of the proscenium.

The Florida Orchestra will present a novel approach to the composer’s typically grand-scaled Seventh Symphony by stripping it to the bone, with only a dozen musicians onstage, in concerts April 21-22. The point is to offer an intimate rather than intimidating experience, says music director Michael Francis. Instead of a full orchestra wrapping itself around the 65-minute work, a rarely heard chamber version invites listeners to step inside the music.

Bruckner with the Order of Franz Joseph, 1886

“All the notes and harmonies are the same, you just don’t have the big number of players,’’ Francis says. “There’s something really compelling about it, and it takes you on an emotional journey once your ears get used to it.’’

The reduced arrangement is for pairs of violins and timpani; a single viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, and horn; four-hands piano; and harmonium. The music was prepared in 1921 by members of Vienna’s Society for Private Musical Performances, founded by Arnold Schoenberg three years earlier with the idea of making noteworthy music accessible through smaller forces.

The emphasis on reduction made sense: The ravages of World War I, inflation, and the Spanish flu pandemic disrupted orchestra seasons across Europe, and the society served as an outlet for works by such luminaries as Bartok, Mahler, Stravinsky, and Strauss.

“A century ago, it was a way to keep music alive, to survive without the big sonic effect,’’ Francis says. “It’s really touching that music could still continue through difficult times like the Spanish flu. This performance links us to a hundred years ago, so it feels special to be doing it.’’

Three members of the Schoenberg society worked on the alteration: Hanns Eisler crafted the first and third movements, Erwin Stein condensed the adagio, and Karl Rankl made adjustments to the finale. Unfortunately, the society disbanded shortly afterward, and their Bruckner collaboration sat in limbo for decades. In 1994, a new source-critical edition by Alan Leighton added optional timpani.

In its original form, the Seventh is one of the grandest — and least-revised — of Bruckner’s nine symphonies. It was completed in 1883 and dedicated to Ludwig II of Bavaria. Arthur Nikisch conducted the premiere the following year with the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, and it was quickly hailed as the 60-year-old composer’s finest achievement.

Michael Francis

A hallmark of Bruckner’s symphonies is harmonic spaciousness, as well as swirling and lamenting themes with massive crescendos that end in silence. In the Seventh, a profound ecstasy carries the listener through an epic series of statements and counter-statements, the first movement a model of granite strength propelled by a motif Bruckner said came to him in a dream.

The ethereal adagio in C-sharp minor follows, spanning 23 minutes and ending with a cry from the brass — the composer’s expression of grief over the passing of his idol, Richard Wagner. The scherzo, propelled by rugged, earthy rhythms, is one of Bruckner’s most gripping creations.

Some listeners might wonder if the symphony can retain its weight on such a small scale. The publisher of the score, Breitkopf & Haertel, believes so, noting that “Bruckner’s compositional artistry emerges with compelling clarity in the reduced version.’’

Surprisingly, the instrumental parts in both versions are similar, but with so few players on deck, any mistake stands out, says Sarah Shellman, who plays one of the two violin parts.

“One difference is there’s nowhere to hide and little room for error with one player on a part,’’ she says. “Any discrepancy in pitch is instantly noticeable. Orchestral works rarely require string players to use double stops — there are enough people to cover multiple notes written in a single part. In this chamber version, one person has to cover all the notes — another intonation pitfall.’’

Violinist Sarah Shellman

All this aside, just having Bruckner’s name on a program can send shivers through an orchestra’s marketing department, especially when ticket sales cover less than 40 percent of the cost of an average concert. These performances mark only the fourth Florida Orchestra presentation of the Seventh since 1972, with its last appearance 18 years ago.

So, will this slim-and-trim offering, with all its transparency, turn skeptical listeners into Brucknerians? Francis believes it will.

“What makes Bruckner so unique is he connects the ancient and modern worlds, and probably better than anyone,” he said. “When you let the sound wash over you, it’s one of the most mesmerizing experiences in music.”

Upcoming performances of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony for chamber ensemble:

April 21 — The Florida Orchestra, Church of the Ascension, Clearwater, FL

April 22 — The Florida Orchestra, Palladium Theater, St. Petersburg, FL

May 7 — St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Waldniel, Germany

May 27 — Festival Resonances, Château de Halloy, Ciney, Belgium