Hindemith: Nusch-Nuschi Tänze, Sancta Susanna, Op. 21 & Symphony "Mathis der Maler"
Shortly before the pandemic struck, Marin Alsop opened a new chapter in her career, as chief conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Following tenures at the Bournemouth, São Paulo, and Baltimore symphony orchestras, the US conductor quickly realized her new ensemble had a rather different approach. “Surprisingly, the standard repertoire is not really the meat and potatoes of this orchestra,” she tells Apple Music. “It’s much more eclectic, much more far-reaching. I think this is the only place in the world where I could say, ‘I’d love to do Hindemith for my opening concert,’ and they could come back with, ‘Do you want to pair that with something edgy?’ I thought, ‘Ah, OK, I have died and arrived. This is no longer Kansas.”
The Hindemith works from that opening concert are heard on this album, recorded in Vienna’s beautiful and acoustically resplendent Konzerthaus. Paul Hindemith is a composer who rarely evokes great passion. But when he does, it’s with huge enthusiasm. And either way, his role in 20th-century music is very important, whether as composer, viola player, or teacher, and he was a key figure in establishing musical education in Turkey and also taught in the States. “People might know him for his pedagogical work, say, at Yale,” Alsop suggests, “but not for his commitment to youth and young people and underserved communities.” It’s something that clearly strikes a chord with this most socially conscious of conductors. “I think the more information you can have about a creator, what he or she was experiencing in that moment in time, and what was the root of the inspiration for the piece, the more convincing one can become, I believe,” Alsop adds. “Our job is to be the messengers of the composer.” Read on as Alsop walks us through this album, work by work.
“Nusch-Nuschi Tänze” “I was looking for something to fill up the album and my colleague, the orchestra director Christoph Becher, suggested these three dances. I thought they were perfect because they’re also from another short opera. And opera binds this whole program together. So, it all seemed to fit in terms of its context, and they’re really just delightful dances filled with character.”
“Sancta Susanna, Op. 21” “This is one of Hindemith’s early short operas, not quite half an hour long, and while the story raised a few eyebrows at its premiere, and is still quite controversial, I tend to approach it, perhaps, from a more feminist direction. When we did it in concert in Vienna, the audience responded really well and thought it was pretty cool. It ends with the nun Susanna tearing the loincloth from a statue of Christ. Rather than accept forgiveness from the convent, she asks to be walled-up just as another young girl had been years before for blasphemy. But by her very act, she achieves a strength she never knew she had. It’s powerful stuff.”
“Symphony ‘Mathis der Maler’” “I used to do this piece frequently—it was sort of one of my party pieces for many years because my teacher Leonard Bernstein introduced me to it at Tanglewood and taught it to me. So, on the front page of my score, I have an inscription from Lenny talking to me about Mathis der Maler. It was really nice. He loved the piece and was a huge fan of both the symphony and Hindemith as a composer. The Mathis der Maler symphony is interesting because Hindemith composed it as he was writing the opera of the same name. Of course, every piece a composer writes is autobiographical in some way—it just has to be. So, I always think that Hindemith is working through his own personal justification for being an artist. Mathis—Matthias Grünewald—was a painter who created the Isenheim Altarpiece in the 16th century, and the three panels of the altarpiece form the three movements of the symphony. Hindemith lived through both world wars and was in the eye of the storm when it came to the Nazis’ response to his music. So, it was a time of great trauma, and how he came to terms with it manifests itself in so many of his pieces.”