The Nix Ensemble (so who is this Nix anyway, and why are they naming ensembles after him/her/it?) is a recently formed group consisting of New England Conservatory alums and near-alums Gwen Buttemer, oboe, Maureen Heflinger, viola, and Chris Gamboa, piano. They might be able to play the entire repertory for that particular combination in one program, but they are far more flexible and creative than that. On June 2nd, in the packed and sweltering Hunnewell Chapel of Arlington Street Church, they performed a program in honor of the semicentennial of Paul Hindemith’s death, which included one complete piece, bits of several others, and a participatory read-through of a theatrical farce written by Hindemith called Der Bratschenfimmel, or “Viola Mania,” in a translation by Michael Freyhan. It was a thought-provoking event, although the thoughts it provoked might not have been quite along the lines the eager presenters intended.
The first movement of Hindemith’s 1938 oboe sonata began the program. The movement, marked Munter, or cheerfully, suggests, a jovial romp in the unmistakable Hindemith mature style (say what you will about the music, but only a few composers had such a distinctive voice). What is most remarkable about this piece (and the other two movements are not to the contrary) is how unremarkable it is in affect, considering that it was written while the composer was in process of exiling himself and his family from Nazi Germany. The clarinet sonata, of the following year, presents similarly. Buttemer possesses a lovely, liquid tone, with fine phrasing and breath control. Her dynamics could have been a bit more nuanced, which would also be our issue with Gamboa’s accompaniment.
Gamboa presided at the Hunnewell’s rather undersized piano for the first two movements (out of four) from the Piano Sonata No. 1 (1936, the same year he wrote all his numbered piano sonatas), subtitled “The Main,” for the river that flows through Frankfurt and, a bit farther upstream, Hindemith’s home town of Hanau. This sonata is actually his second, the first, from 1920, not having a serial number but carrying the designation of op. 17. In the short first movement, Gamboa demonstrated much greater dynamic sensitivity and intense feeling than he did in the oboe sonata, while in the “slow march” second movement he was stately, pensive and sad, until the music gave way to that prototypical bumptious 6/8 meter, Hindemith’s velveteen rabbit of a rhythm that he just loved to bits.
Between the piano sonata and the solo viola sonata, op. 25 No. 1, came the first two acts of the play, but we’ll save describing that until the end. The viola sonata, the second of four that Hindemith wrote for his own instrument “all by its lonesome,” is also the most famous. Dating from 1922, at the height of Hindemith’s “wild man” period, its fourth movement, which Heflinger played as well as the third, has the notorious tempo marking “raging tempo (maybe better translated as “headlong”)—wild—tonal beauty is secondary.” Heflinger’s reading of the slow movement that precedes it was, it seemed, a bit tentative, perhaps in overly calculated contrast to the finale, which was a virtuoso showpiece that she brought off with most creditable flair and élan.
The remaining music on the program, which for dramatic effect we have previously avoided telling you was entitled “Project Heckelmith,” was a complete performance of the Trio for Viola, Heckelphone and Piano, op. 47 (1928). This is probably the most famous chamber work for the heckelphone (it’s a good piece, but the field isn’t exactly crowded), which is the largest member of the oboe family. The trouble is that there are so few actual heckelphones in existence—maybe 24 in all of North America and under 200 worldwide—that the piece is almost never played on one. Moreover, as Buttemer told us, the proprietors of those two dozen don’t share; “if you want to rent a heckelphone, you have to rent the player with it.” The trio is therefore often performed on a tenor saxophone, which, to appropriate Wallace Stevens, seems “a gross effigy and simulacrum”; a heckel-phony, you might say. For this concert, Buttemer played a bass oboe, which like the heckelphone is pitched an octave below the regular (soprano) oboe, but having a narrower bore and therefore not quite as robust a tone as the definite article. To hear what the real McCoy sounds like, though in a fairly wan performance, you can go here.
The trio is in two multi-sectioned movements. While in sound it is clearly moving toward Hindemith’s mature style (without the highly evolved tonal theorizing), it retains some of the structural experimentation of his youthful style. For example, the opening movement is additive, starting with a piano solo, moving to the heckelphone with piano, and then finally adding in the viola. Gamboa gave the opening a big brash treatment; Buttemer ably ported her graceful fluidity to the bass instrument with supple elegance, which was well matched by Heflinger. The second movement is more contrapuntal and peppy, and here we detected a bit of a balance problem in which the piano, even at short stick, was overpowering. This might be an artifact of an excessively live room. We should mention that the heat and humidity of the day could have wreaked havoc on the intonation of all the instruments, but we were impressed by how well the players compensated.
So now for the dramatic component of the afternoon. It appears—though you really have to hunt down this arcane knowledge—that Hindemith wrote perhaps eight nutty musical plays in his youth, of which Viola Mania is one, written in 1920. We won’t give you a synopsis here, but will instead refer you to this one. Suffice it to say that while it is highly commendable that even a great player like Hindemith could indulge in an hour-long viola joke, the potty humor (read that any way you like) would have even devotees of Hasty Pudding theatricals rolling their eyeballs.
The method of presentation was by lot. No, really. Each audience member got a numbered copy of the script, and parts were assigned for each act by pulling numbers at random. A clever party game, but why would a group of fine musicians forgo playing some excellent musical works to make room for this? Well, here’s one reason: this performance was specifically funded by outside agencies, which like to see (and Nix Ensemble makes a programmatic point of stressing) “community outreach.” Now, taking classical music to places and audiences that don’t normally get to hear it is worthy of highest praise. Having community readings, even when the community is a concert audience, of plays by composers or anyone else, is fun and might even be enlightening, although it might help if even the musicians reading this one could pronounce German expressions like “Mainzer Landstrasse.” But when the second activity undermines the first, that’s not outreach, it’s just dilution. Let’s hope that this is not the “new normal” in either music performance practice or music funding.