Thursday, November 13, 2014


Sheila and OreoBy Sheila Abrams

A while back, the Madison-based Baroque Orchstra of New Jersey adopted the title, Baroque and Beyond, for its newsletter. This has increasingly made sense as the orchestra has played an ever-widening variety of music.

Recently, the orchestra has performed world premieres of works by pianist Paul Ziegler and BONJ’s own conductor, Robert W. Butts. A few years ago, it featured a composition by another New Jersey composer, Derwyn Holder.

So it’s no surprise that, in spite of its Baroque underpinnings, BONJ has challenged its audience once more. The opening concert of the 2014-2015 season, held Nov. 9 at the College of St. Elizabeth presented a program featuring two works by Paul Hindemith.

We were certainly not alone among the BONJ audience members to greet this information with some anxiety. Hindemith, whose life spanned 1895 to 1963, is thought of as a “modern” composer. To many, that means music that is jarring, atonal and hard to understand.

Interestingly, this reputation dates back to Hindemith’s early compositions, which were condemned by the Nazi culture police in his native Germany as decadent. Hindemith emigrated from Germany in 1938 and spent much of his later years here in the United States.

Oddly, though no longer living in Germany, the composer became enthralled with a more ancient German culture. The longer piece featured at the Nov. 9 concert, Der Schwanendreher (The Swan-Turner—more about that later) was composed in 1935 and was based on three medieval German folk songs. It was, moreover, heavily influenced by the great father of Baroque music, Johann Sebastian Bach.

The Swan-Turner of the title is from the third of the folk songs, and refers to a cook’s assistant, the one whose job it is to turn the handle of a spit on which a swan is roasting. Even with Thanksgiving approaching, that’s not an easy image. And later, as Maestro Butts explained, it became the term for an organ-grinder, the lowest level of medieval musician, whose job it was to turn the crank on the hurdy-gurdy. So much for Swan-Turners, a job title of which we will likely never hear again.

But back to the work. What especially makes it unique is that it is one of very few concertos composed for viola and orchestra. The soloist with BONJ was Brett Deubner, a world-renowned viola virtuoso, who made us wonder why this instrument is not featured more often. Its voice, below the violin and above the cello, is haunting and beautiful.

To highlight the viola, Hindemith scored the work for an orchestra with no violins or violas, so that the sound of the solo instrument stands out. The three movements are unexpectedly melodic and lyrical. Often the sound of the solo viola plays above a countermelody from the other instruments, particularly the cello section.

Hindemith was himself the soloist in the world premiere of this work, in Amsterdam. It is speculated by some musicologists that the isolation of the viola reflects the composer’s sense of isolation from his native country. As a newcomer to Hindemith’s music, I found it accessible and emotionally powerful.

The concert began with a short piece also by Hindemith, Trauermusik, (Mourning Music), composed to mark the death of King George V of England. Hindemith was touring in England when the king died in 1936, and wrote the brief and sorrowful piece reportedly in a matter of a few hours.

The concert took a sharp turn following the intermission. “Tchaikovsky needs no explanation,” announced Maestro Butts, as he turned to conduct the orchestra in the gorgeously rousing Symphony #4. Butts seems to conduct Tchaikovsky from the depth of his being, with energy and passion. He is really a great Tchaikovsky conductor.

For those who always need a little Baroque, the concert had a brief introduction. Four very young musicians played the allegro moderato movement from Franz Josef Haydn’s String Quartet #72, “The Birds.” The four were Evan Cheng, violin 1, Josephine Chuang, violin 2, Emily Wong, viola, and Nick Affatato, cello. All four are coached by BONJ concertmaster, Agnes Kwasniewska.