ANTON BRUCKNER'S Ninth Symphony is an oddity. Bruckner dedicated it to God as his farewell to earth. A well-meaning disciple, Ferdinand Loewe, revised it secretly to make it sound smoother after Bruckner's death in 1896 and before its 1903 premiere. Another scholar restored the original to cheers in 1932. It stayed that way.
A standard reference work once noted that "the symphony is mostly interesting to musical scholars." It's more popular now, but to some it's still like one of those 150-car freight trains that roll by slowly as you want to get on with your life.
All this faded into the background last night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall when Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, the conductor praised for his Bruckner interpretations, led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a stirring horn, string and woodwind-filled performance of the earnest Symphony No. 9 in D Minor.
Although the composer allowed little or no humor or lightheartedness, the BSO rode the one-hour piece fairly fast, with sustained spirit, through lots of color and variety of tone.
The orchestra under the careful control of the Polish-born conductor caught the essence of the Bruckner piece: a mosaic crafted largely from a series of eight well-defined themes without one over-riding emotion or pattern. The repeated ideas developed into climaxes as the powerful BSO brass back-benchers often defined Bruckner's farewell.
Strings and woodwinds lent contrast and building blocks. One moment, basses carved out a clear tattoo. Other times, the flutes and oboes carried their weight. Brass returned again and again. Strings finally ended Bruckner's last work, possibly not as the Austrian had originally intended (he died before writing the final movement). Unusual but not unwelcome was the calm close.
Earlier in the evening, Heinz Holliger, back here on an American tour after a three-year absence, proved again he is master of the oboe in his enthusiastic playing of Richard Strauss' lyrical "Oboe Concerto" (1946). Like Bruckner's Ninth, the work was composed at the end of the composer's life but pounds lighter.
The soft four-note cello opening was done and gone in seconds when Holliger jumped in and began his tricky, melodic 56-bar entrance. The double-reed instrument has a 2 1/2 -octave range but, some say, narrower emotional scope than some other instruments. Yet Holliger played with a sharply focused delicacy that complemented the orchestra's sounds in clear appealing tones.
The Swiss musician, also a conductor, composer and pianist, was an exhibit in concentration. He leaned from one foot to the other, swayed with body English, furrowed his brow, showed breath control, came up for air and attacked again and again, beautifully. His runs were athletic. The victory smile at the end of the 25-minute marathon was deserved.
The program will be repeated at 8:15 tonight.