Salonen delivers a podium master class in music of Hindemith and Salonen

Thu Nov 07, 2019 at 3:45 pm
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the New York Philharmonic in his Gemini Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

“When, oh when will we hear Salonen’s Hindemith?”

This may have been among the least-asked questions of 2019, but it was abundantly and most enjoyably answered Wednesday night in an astutely designed program of music by Paul Hindemith and others, led by Esa-Pekka Salonen with the New York Philharmonic.

The “others” included Salonen himself, whose Gemini for large orchestra, composed last year and this, scored an impressive New York premiere on Wednesday.

The Finnish-born maestro, the once and future king of conducting in California (previously in Los Angeles, soon in San Francisco), has a well-earned reputation for taking audiences where they didn’t know they wanted to go.

Music of Hindemith, the German émigré who was a force in mid-20th century music but less frequently programmed today, yielded enormous rewards Wednesday, the concert culminating in a vital performance of Hindemith’s evergreen masterpiece, the Mathis der Maler Symphony.

A rambunctious rebel in his youth, Hindemith eventually played a Brahms-like role on the music scene, giving classical forms and idioms a modern gloss, offering an alternative to the more radical sounds of Arnold Schoenberg and his school.

And who should show up on Wednesday’s program but the twelve-tone master himself, in colorful arrangements of two Bach organ pieces, which the orchestra performed as a set with Hindemith’s own Bach-inspired Ragtime (Well-Tempered) for large orchestra.

All three pieces raised eyebrows in their day, Hindemith’s by setting the C minor Fugue of The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I tripping to ragtime, the dance craze of 1921, and Schoenberg’s by clothing Bach’s chaste chorale preludes in an orchestral coat of many colors.

As quoted in the printed program, both composers defended their loyalty to the Leipzig master. “If Bach had been alive today,” wrote Hindemith in 1921, “he might very well have invented the shimmy…”  For his part, Schoenberg wrote in 1930 that “colors help to clarify the movement of the parts, and in a contrapuntal texture, that is very important!”

In performance, Hindemith’s brief Ragtime came across as an irreverent tribute, a precursor to pieces like Lukas Foss’s Baroque Variations and maybe even P.D.Q. Bach. 

Schoenberg’s renderings of the serene Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele and the exuberant Komm, Gott, Schöpfer, heiliger Geist seemed to glow from within, thanks to Salonen’s exquisite tone balancing and an eloquent cello solo by Carter Brey in the first prelude.

The Philharmonic can claim certain proprietary rights in the Schoenberg pieces, having introduced them under Josef Stransky in 1922, the first time a new Schoenberg work had received its world premiere in the United States.

The contrasting pair of Bach preludes seemed to echo in the two contrasting movements of Salonen’s Gemini. By his account, the composer found the germ of an idea developing in his mind in two different directions, one dark and introspective, the other fast and extroverted. The result was two pieces, which he named for the mythological twin half-brothers Castor and Pollux, sons of Leda by her mortal husband and by Zeus, who came to her disguised as a swan.

According to myth, Castor and Pollux became the two brightest stars in the constellation Gemini. Their exploits on earth included cattle thievery, horsemanship, and timely interventions in wars, but none of this backstory, nor anything astronomical, appeared to figure in Salonen’s two richly-imagined character pieces for orchestra.

Pollux was the divine brother, and his piece came first, amid legato string lines in a moderate tempo punctuated gently by timpani and orchestral bells. Fine solos for horn and oboe stole through the polytonal landscape.

The mortal Castor entered with agitated brass, tremolando strings, and flashes of metal percussion. (If one were looking for horses and war in Gemini, this would be the place.)  Salonen the composer and conductor delivered a master class in percussion-accented modern orchestration, kaleidoscopic yet transparent, ranging in texture from thin to silky to robust.

Along the stage’s back wall, four large horizontal drums, and a gong that looked big enough to serve dinner for twelve on, promised Olympian thunder, which arrived satisfyingly in the movement’s closing pages.

Salonen conducted his piece, and everything else, with poise and precision, while the orchestra’s obviously thorough preparation took care of the rest.

Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler, based on the life of the 16th-century painter Matthias Grünewald and composed at the height of the Nazi era, resoundingly affirmed the value of the individual artist under an oppressive state. As he was working on Mathis, the composer fulfilled an orchestral commission by creating a symphony from material composed for the opera, naming the three movements for panels in Grünewald’s great work, the Isenheim Altarpiece.

One imagined Hindemith could hardly ask for a richer realization of his masterful score than it received from Salonen and the Philharmonic on Wednesday. The first movement’s brass chorale was splendidly tuned and blended, the string tone alternately sinewy and airy, the woodwind doublings piquant. “Music of the Angels,” indeed.

The brief “Entombment” was subtly shaped and paced while respecting this composer’s north German emotional reserve. The “Temptation of Saint Anthony” crackled with tension and spiritual torment, emerging at last into a cello prayer under a sizzling desert sun of pianissimo high violins.

Salonen found the inner flow of this episodic music and, within the characteristic brightness of this orchestra’s sound, revealed Hindemith to be as much an orchestral colorist as Schoenberg and Salonen himself.

The only complaint might be that it took maestro Salonen this long to give us what we didn’t know we wanted.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. nyphil.org; 212-875-5656.


3 Responses to “Salonen delivers a podium master class in music of Hindemith and Salonen”

  1. Posted Nov 08, 2019 at 1:13 pm by Susan Morrison

    Great review. The concert had shimmering and exciting music. Carter Brey was incandescent and hearing E-P Salonen’s new piece was thrilling. I love your PDQ Bach reference–very apt!

  2. Posted Nov 12, 2019 at 3:30 pm by Harry Saltzman

    Yes, he is a fine conductor. But Oh, his composition was 26 minutes of murky meaningless orchestra twaddle, and his spoken introduction just an overblown extension of the program notes. Also annoying was his attempt to appear “cool” by alluding to “grunge,” whatever that is, which “inspired” the first movement of his composition.

  3. Posted Nov 13, 2019 at 5:29 pm by DKH

    Thank you for this perceptive review. What a contrast from the execrably pretentious and fatuous review in the NY Times from the frustratingly second-rate Zachary Woolfe, who just gets worse and worse. It was truly an enjoyable evening. The brass and winds were nothing short of sumptuous, strings pleasingly unified, and percussion absolutely virtuosic throughout the program.

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