This story was originally published May 1, 2011.
Let’s listen to some Hindemith.
I’m sitting in a large, cheery room with orangeish walls, bookcases stuffed with CDs, a massive big-screen TV, a rack of audio components and two Magnepan electrostatic stereo speakers that stand nearly as tall as Fresno Philharmonic conductor Theodore Kuchar.
Many times before a Philharmonic concert, I talk with Kuchar about music featured on the upcoming program. But talking and music are activities that always seem a little awkward together. You lose something in the process. This time, I decided to do something different – and set up an opportunity to listen with the conductor instead.
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We’re in the multi-media room at his Fresno home in Sunnyside, a pleasant, sun-drenched space that looks out on a yard in which Kuchar himself planted the roses. (His wife, Alena, a violinist in the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra, which her husband conducts, has made a rare trip to Fresno to play for the first time with the Philharmonic in this weekend’s concerts, and at the moment she’s outside clipping some of those roses.)
Kuchar’s great passion at the moment is Paul Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler” Symphony, which isn’t the longest piece on the program – the Brahms Symphony No. 2 takes that honor – but the toughest. He adores it.
“It’s one of the sonic showstoppers of the first half of the 20th century, “ he says. (The orchestra performed Saturday night at the Saroyan Theatre and will repeat the program at 2:30 p.m. today.)
Before we get to the actual listening part, Kuchar fills me in on some important background. Hindemith, a German, wrote the challenging piece in 1934. Translated, the title is “Matthew the Painter,” a reference to Matthias Grünewald, a German Renaissance painter. Each of the three movements represents one of the panels of the Isenheim Altar, the painter’s great masterpiece.
Subtext swirls throughout here: Hindemith was pushing back against the Nazis in Germany, and by deciding to highlight the life of Grünewald – who fought against religious repression in his time – it was considered a snub of Nazi ideology. And the modernistic style of the music, thought by many to be less accessible to “the masses, “ flagged Hindemith as a problem composer.
Kuchar has five different versions of the Hindemith on CD, and he alternates them as we listen. Some he likes better than others. (The Philadelphia Orchestra recording conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch is “boring as hell, “ and another version by the same orchestra, this one conducted by Eugene Ormandy, “is like a pizza that’s been left out on the counter for a couple of days.”) His favorite: the San Francisco Symphony version conducted by Herbert Blomstedt.
With the score in front of him, he points out the characteristics of the piece: the way the first movement, “Engelkonzert” (translated as “The Angel Concert”), has a basis in early Christian chants but with a modern twist; the somber beauty of the second movement, “Grablegun” (”Entombment”), meant to remember Christ in the grave after his crucifixion; and, finally, the spectacular sounds of “Verschung des heiligen Antonius” (”The Temptation of St. Anthony”), which with twisted musical phrases immediately thrusts us into hell but ends with a glorious brass cacophony that Kuchar calls “one of the greatest climaxes in music.”
We spend 15 minutes on just one measure at the beginning of the third movement in which Hindemith hoped to evoke the hysteria of hell. The notation looks simple – just eight eighth notes in a row – but the composer marked the tempo rubato, or flexible. Kuchar puts on one CD after another, showing how different conductors tried to reconcile these seemingly contradictory markings.
And how does Kuchar himself handle the moment? With a precise counting system that involves dividing the notes into three groups and pushing through with a pulse that sounds almost chaotic to the audience but remains precisely in sync.
Throughout the listening session, the conductor can’t help but smile as he connects the music on the page with what is pouring through the speakers, his hand beating time with an imaginary baton.
By the time the third movement breaks free of its hysteria and reaches heaven in the glorious brass “Alleluia, “ there’s a slightly dreamy look in his eyes that suggests Kuchar is already thinking what it will be like to bring such fervency to life on stage.
“When I’m in the middle of it, it’s moments like these that make me proud to be a musician, “ he says.
That’s enough to make me all ears.