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By Mary Kunz Goldman

News Classical Music Critic

“He’s tough.”

So went the whispers at Kleinhans Music Hall on Saturday night, regarding the guest conductor, Gunther Herbig. Herbig, a legend in his 80s, is making his debut with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. He is conducting an awesome, challenging symphony, Bruckner’s Eighth. And – so the rumors went – he was really putting the musicians through their paces.

That was only one of the things making this weekend’s concert so exciting.

The Bruckner Eighth is so massive and problematic that you do not hear it much. Josef Krips conducted it twice here, but there has been only one other performance, and it was more than 20 years ago. So it says something that Herbig, a compact and powerful figure, knows the mountainous symphony by heart and is conducting without a score.

Also, though the massive Bruckner often stands on its own, it is being paired this weekend with Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, with the 23-year-old violinist Benjamin Beilman as soloist. Beilman, in a last-minute twist of fate, is playing the “Mary Portman” Guarneri owned by Buffalo philanthropists Clement and Karen Arrison. The priceless instrument was once owned by Fritz Kreisler. A few years ago, the Arrisons suggested to The News that they thought it was pleasantly haunted, that it had a way of determining the next violinist who would play it.

So there you have it: a symphony you almost never hear, conducted from memory by a demanding Old World maestro, plus a violin phenom playing a haunted violin. Is this a wonderful town or what?

The concert is unusual from the word go. Beilman is a rare and wonderful violinist. He has a quiet singing tone that brought out the graces of the temperamental instrument that had just been placed in his hands. It suited the delicate nature of this concerto, with all its quicksilver, scampering melodies. Beilman also plays with guts, though, when the situation requires it. In the clear acoustics of Kleinhans you could feel the bow dancing across the strings and hear the occasional scrape. It made things thrilling.

Herbig, meanwhile, was the perfect conductor for the job. He is clearly detail oriented and aware of everything going on in the orchestra at any moment. Whereas some conductors are hands off and vague, Herbig is hands on. He holds the baton in his right hand and shapes the music with his left. He is always communicating. It was unusual how, from time to time, he turned directly to face Beilman and stayed there, eye to eye with him. They were that way through the entire crescendo at the end of the first movement.

And what a crescendo it was, the music speeding up just so, every swift note in its place. In this warm, witty, romantic concerto, precision is everything. And they had it, from the low sweep of the cellos to Beilman’s trembling, dog-whistle high notes. The famous, songful Andante sang. (You know this, even if you don’t think you do. Andrew Lloyd Webber ripped off the main theme for “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” from “Jesus Christ Superstar.”) The crowd gave the performance a passionate standing ovation.

The Bruckner, after intermission, began almost too suddenly. I would have waited a minute more just to finish setting the mood.

Otherwise, I would not dream of telling Herbig what to do. What a performance this was. This symphony is as massive as the Mendelssohn is delicate. The orchestra has been expanded for it. There are two harps. (Bruckner hoped for three, but ordinarily, we have just one.) There are eight horn players, and if you watch the four along the back wall, you will see them, now and then, swapping their French horns for gleaming “Wagner tubas,” special instruments Wagner called for in his “Ring” cycle.

The symphony had depth and intimacy and held the interest all the way through, though it is well over an hour long.

Herbig paid loving attention to the music’s subtleties, and the orchestra responded with some of the most beautiful playing I have heard in Kleinhans. The rapturous slow movement was incredibly polished, with delicately shifting colors and dynamics. There were brief, sculpted silences and then the music would emerge anew as if from a completely different angle.

One finely etched interlude that stands out in my mind had the flute playing solo against the backdrop of the Wagner tubas. Herbig paced the music well so that it never dragged and built to glorious crests. This symphony has the nickname “Apocalyptic” because the devout Bruckner supposedly had in mind St. Michael the Archangel’s triumph over evil. Whether that is true or not, the ending Saturday was apocalyptic. Everything and everyone was in play. What a moment. What a concert to remember.

The adventure repeats today at 2:30 p.m.

email: mkunz@buffnews.com