SPIKY HINDEMITH SCORE A REAL FIND
By Lawrence Budmen
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) was a musical polymath - composer, conductor, violist, educator, and musicologist. Hindemith was one of the first to perform Baroque music with an original instrument ensemble (at Yale University where he taught for many years.) His formidable conducting talents were often focused on the music of Anton Bruckner. (He led the Chicago Symphony in a legendary performance of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony. Excerpts from that early 1960's performance have been preserved on video. He composed numerous works for the viola - broadening the sparse repertoire for that instrument; yet Hindemith's creative output is more often respected than performed. In a concert of "Chamber Music from Germany and Vienna" members of the New World Symphony revived a genuine rarity - the score for Hindemith's 1922 ballet "The Demon" on February 13, 2005 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach, Florida, USA.
This score proved to be one of Hindemith's most striking creations. Dating from the composer's avant garde period - when Hindemith was the "bad boy of European music" - "The Demon" combines the spiky modernist tendencies of the 1920's with the neo-classicism that would soon become fashionable (particularly in Parisian musical circles). Hindemith's devotion to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his rigorous artistic craftsmanship shine through this fascinating score. The composer's subtle sense of instrumental coloration is very much in evidence in this dance-theater piece. Fierce chords introduce the opening and closing "Dance of the Demon." (The ballet's scenario concerns a Grand Demon who captures two sisters. The women seduce the Demon, thereby losing their innocence.) The principal theme is a neo-Stravinsky motif (in the vein of such works as the "Symphony in Three Movements," "Symphony in C," and "Dumbarton Oaks Concerto") - definitely austere and neo-classical. Piano arpeggios introduce the elegant theme of the "Dance of the Colored Ribbons." Boldly modern trumpet fanfares (a la Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto) resound in the "Dance of Poison." The lengthy Passacaglia introduces a dissonant version of a Bach like theme in the strings. The thematic thread is passed throughout all the instruments of the chamber ensemble. This movement presents Hindemith at his creative peak!. This Passacaglia is an extraordinary piece of instrumental writing! The piano's bell like tones alight the "Dance of Mourning and Yearning."
In the Introduction to the score's second scene - "Four Dances of Wooing" - an extended flute solo in the instrument's upper register recalls the calm beauty of the slow movement of the Stravinsky "Symphony in Three Movements" and Debussy's landmark solo work "Syrinx"(1913). "Dance of the Child" is inflected with that dark, highly colored Russian ethos that Stravinsky mined so effectively in "The Firebird." (Hindemith was clearly aware of the myriad musical influences that were sweeping Europe.) A plaintive viola solo introduces "Dance of the Wide Robe" - lovely music of aching sadness. (Hindemith was a true viola virtuoso and his early works are filled with imaginative writing for that dark, rich toned string instrument.) "Dance of the Orchid in Full Bloom" introduces pianistic bravura in the manner of Ferruccio Busoni - daunting keyboard hand crossings and endlessly rolling octaves. A romantic theme is genuinely Mahlerian - strong and imbued with heated passion. Brass fanfares in the manner of Janacek's "Sinfonietta" mark the "Dance of Brutality." Dark viola and cello solos (in music that rises to the brink of atonality) feature prominently in "Dance of the Beaten Animal" before the final reprise of the astringently neo-classical Demon's Dance. A brightly inventive score for a chamber ensemble of 10 instruments and a vivid reminder of Hindemith's mastery!
The superb flutist Paula Robison may be one of the best kept secrets on America's musical horizon. For three decades this patrician artist has given consistently dazzling performances of both solo works and chamber music scores. Acting as de facto leader of the ensemble for the Hindemith score, Ms. Robison's stratospheric pyrotechnics were indeed brilliant. Her subtle shading, elegant phrasing, and expressive tonal colors were even more impressive. This was musicianship of the most elevated variety! The beautiful dark tone and sensitively sculptured nuances of clarinetist Alucia Scalzo (a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music) was no less impressive. Brilliant trumpet work by Oscar Montoya (from Baylor and Rice Universities) and the keenly musical pianism of Ciro Fodere (who holds a Master's degree from Carnegie Mellon University) added spice to Hindemith's acerbic musical fabric. Above all the string players made Hindemith's deeply intense writing a memorable experience. The soaring tone of violinists Louise Alexander (a graduate of Canada's McGill University and the Cleveland Institute) and Ashoka Thiagarajan (with degrees from the Mannheim Hochschule and the University of Southern California); the richly expressive utterance of violist Jennifer Pluckett (the University of Alabama and the University of Colorado); the darkly lustrous playing of cellist Rebecca Zimmerman (the Cleveland Institute); and the strong underpinning of Matthew Heller (of New England Conservatory and Northwestern University) on double bass provided intense, ravishing performances of Hindemith's marvelous string writing! A bracing, frequently eloquent performance of a difficult work!
The early works of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) were the afternoon's other principal attraction. The "Serenade in E-flat for 13 Wind Instruments," Opus 7 from 1882 was greatly admired by no less than Hans van Bulow (who led his Meiningen Orchestra in the score in 1884). While the spirit of Mendelssohn hovers over the single movement score, the thematic material has the sweep and lyrical European romanticism of mature Strauss. The graceful instrumental invention illustrates Strauss's mastery in writing for wind instruments. Robison's glowing tone rode the ensemble impressively. Two wonderful oboists - Katherine Young (from the Eastman School of Music and Rice University) and Karen Birch (a graduate of Oberlin College and the Hartt School of Music) - displayed glorious plangent tone and beautifully nuanced coloration. The entire ensemble played with precision and sensitivity. An important revival!
Three early Strauss works opened the program. These charming vignettes were more than just interesting curios. The "Festmarsch" was a typically Prussian march with a warmly Vienesse central episode. From 1893 came the romantic "Liebesliedchen" and the lively, Eastern tinged "Arabischer Tanz."
The surviving movement of the "Piano Quartet in A Minor" (circa 1876) by the 16 year old Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was a pleasure to encounter. While the chamber works of Schubert and Dvorak were clearly influences, this music sings with the burning passion and intensity of human emotion that is quintessentially Mahler. The instrumental writing is richly expressive and technically demanding. A wonderful score! In both the Strauss vignettes and Mahler quartet violinist Veronica Pellegrini's intonation was sometimes uncertain but her musical intensity was undeniable. The exquisite pianism of Anna Stoytcheva (a native of Bulgaria and graduate of New York's Julliard School) was a standout. Ms. Stoytcheva's playing was exquisite - limpid and elegant of phrase. Her deeply passionate musical approach set the Mahler extract ablaze. The beautiful, glowingly burnished tone of cellist Marilyn De Olivera (a native of Brazil who holds degrees from Indiana and Rice Universities) was sonorous and rich. The finely pointed musicality of violist Chris Tantillo (Cleveland Institute) added depth to the quartet.
The New World Symphony musicians offered an engrossing afternoon of rarely heard works. Their performances were consistently well rehearsed and idiomatically conceived. The revivals of important scores by Mahler and Hindemith were major artistic events and a tribute to the inventive musical spirit of Paula Robison and her colleagues!