A few years ago, in a series of articles on music education in the Triangle, we described the new Suzuki violin program for grades K through 4 at R.N. Harris Elementary School in Durham. Last Friday morning, April 7, we heard the great strides the children in this program made, as they played in Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium before famed violinist Midori, in town for a performance with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra. Before their own concert, the children attended a rehearsal of Beethoven's Violin Concerto by Midori and the Symphony, watching in rapt attention as the conductor, NCSO's Associate Conductor William Henry Curry, worked at bringing all the musical elements together. From the children's excited comments, it was clear how impressed they were, and also how observant, and how much they have learned. "She holds her bow differently than Mr. ... shows us," commented one little girl.
The concert that evening was a study in contrasts. It opened with a spirited performance of the overture to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, but dominating the first half was Paul Hindemith's symphony Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter). Unfortunately, the legends that arose 60 years ago over the creation of this great work persist to this day. It is not, as is usually claimed, an expression of protest against the Nazis, but just the opposite, the composition of an artist who wanted to make music instead of politics.
The symphony was composed in 1934 for the Berlin Philharmonic, at a time when Hindemith was working on the libretto for an opera with the same title. The opera is based on events in the life of a 16th-century German painter, Mathis Neithart (also known as Grünewald, a misnomer by his first biographer), whose most famous work is an altarpiece in a monastery in Isenheim in Alsace. The artist, who goes to fight for the peasants during the religious wars of the Reformation, finds out that he is unsuited for combat and should stick to his art. Hindemith created the symphony describing three panels of the altarpiece, and only later incorporated the music into the opera. In composing Mathis der Maler, Hindemith was trying to give an apolitical message to the new Nazi authorities, but to no avail--Adolf Hitler marked him as one of his growing list of degenerate artists. Hindemith had to leave Germany in 1938 and ended up at Yale University.
Mathis der Maler is a work demanding that every player, especially the winds, be a virtuoso. The performance by the NCSO was a good demonstration of the quality of our Symphony players, helped by Curry's approach, which was to gradually build up the tension and climaxes. In the first panel, Angelic Concert, three angels sing and play to the Virgin and Child. Hindemith's music alternates complex counterpoint with simple melodies on the woodwinds, and Curry's precise cuing and direction made for exceptional clarity of the musical lines. The second panel, Entombment, describes the entombment of Christ. It is solemn, haunting, funerary music, and Curry emphasized the halting nature of the movement to a point where you could virtually hear the sobs of the mourners. In the third panel, Temptation of St. Anthony, he brought out the demonic nature of Hindemith's music, describing the grotesque creatures--always a stunning part of Saint Anthony's iconography--that torment the saint to the point of insanity, and contrasting it with the reaffirmation of the saint's faith in a grand finale in the style of a Bach chorale prelude.
The second half of the program was devoted to Beethoven's Violin Concerto, with Midori as soloist. This work is so frequently played that violinists find it difficult to come up with an innovative approach to its performance. But Midori clearly found one. She is a serious artist and certainly thought long and hard about her approach to this work. Hers was without doubt the most introverted, introspective and gentle performance of this concerto we have ever heard. Never louder than mezzo forte, Midori's intensely expressive playing riveted the audience and forced a silence that is rarely heard in the nearly full Memorial Auditorium. Curry and the orchestra matched her gentle tone superbly, never overpowering and drowning it.
But too much of a good thing can be a detriment. Midori maintained this style of playing into the third movement, thus denying the listener the release that this playful virtuoso piece is meant to give after the gentle larghetto. There is no such thing as a definitive interpretation and, whether we agree with every interpretive decision of a performer, it is exciting to hear a fresh and well thought-out approach to a familiar work. Overall, Midori's was a performance to remember.