Critical Words: Hindemith at the National Symphony

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Walt Whitman

On the face of it, it was probably a mistake to go hear DC’s National Symphony Orchestra in person after a week of listening to Claudio Abbado and his deluxe bands (Berlin Phil and his hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra chief among them).  But a friend was singing in the chorus for Paul Hindemith’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a setting of Whitman’s poem; big, ambitious and, until last night, a little obscure to me (despite having heard it twice before).

The performance was superb; Hindemith is most sympathetic to Whitman’s long lines, which blur into prose

so often, and would seem to defy easy musical setting. The technique in the piece is dazzling–the big fugal passages evoke Bach’s grand architecture, and the text setting, particularly given the clear diction of last night’s soloists and chorus, is specific and haunting. (If occasionally a tad literal, do we really need “taps” in a piece of mourning?) But it’s the spine of the poem that Hindemith resonates with: dark threnody at some times, joyous release at others. This spine became a shared vision about the piece that came through from conductor Christoph Eschenbach, a champion of Hindemith, the orchestra, soloists Michelle DeYoung and Matthias Goerne, and Scott Tucker’s polished Choral Arts Society (who have been building from strength to strength this season).

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Paul Hindemith


In particular, Goerne is a freaky and compelling dude as a singer. Half way through, I jotted down that he was “somebody out of the Old Testament” on my program; but, I think “out of Beowulf” might be the better term.  His voice is not opulent exactly, but it does come right at you–every word pulled from some deep dark spot, and you are instantly in the thrall of a rapt story teller. And not a comfortable, cozy one. One whose stories seem lit by very old firelight and a little like an incantation. Completing the whole picture is the fact that he looks like he could be a cast member on Sons of Anarchy. Apparently he gave a Schone Mullerin earlier this week with Eschenbach at the piano to much

acclaim, although I’m skeptical.  That’s a piece about youthful ardor, and this is, in Whitman’s own words,

“As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,”

And that is what the man can do.

So, while no Abbado & the Berlin Phil, a worthwhile evening. Not made more so, alas, by the first half of the concert, which was given over to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Charitably, I will assume that they didn’t have much time to rehearse this warhorse, which both the orchestra and the soloist, Josh Bell, have traversed–less clunkily–many times before. At least, one assumes that the out of tune and unbalanced brass passages, solo violin phrasing exaggerated to the point of “mugging for the camera,” and the “if we finish together it’s all okay, really” level of ensemble were not active musical choices. All concerned can do better.

But back to something inspiring: If you haven’t encountered Goerne and are into lieder, here he is in Mahler,

from a Proms concert. Singing as storytelling, not the only way to do it, but very well done indeed here.


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