On the 12th day of the latest U.S. government shutdown, the Redlands Symphony Orchestra gave us not 12 drummers drumming — though there were two or three in the percussion section — or even 12 House members hammering out a budget deal, but a concert called “A Better World” to open the 2013-14 season.
The Saturday night concert in the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel featured two pieces from the 1930s, when the storm clouds of World War II were rolling in. That era was not the better world that seemed to be slipping out of reach in the 1930s, but both pieces of music connect with the fight for a better world.
Those pieces were William Walton’s “Crown Imperial,” written in 1937 for the coronation of Britain’s King George VI; and German composer Paul Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler: Symphony,” music written in 1934 and soon banned by the Nazis.
George VI, who suffered from a stammer (remember “The King’s Speech”?), unexpectedly became king when his older brother Edward VIII abdicated. Not long after his 1937 coronation, he became a symbol of strength for Britain during World War II.
Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler” (“Matthias the Painter”) symphony is excerpts from his opera of the same name. The opera tells the story of artist Matthias Gruenewald in the context of the 16th-century German Peasants’ War against their government. It was Hindemith’s way of protesting the Nazi ideology taking over his country in 1933, according to the Redlands Symphony’s program notes, and the opera’s book-burning scene mirrored Nazi book burnings.
The symphonic version had one performance in Berlin in 1934 before the Nazis banned it, according to the program notes.
Hindemith left Germany later in the 1930s, living in Switzerland until he came to the United States in 1940. He became a U.S. citizen after World War II, but later returned to Switzerland.
We could debate whether today’s world is getting better or worse, but I’d say the European world was better in the 1950s than it would have been if the Nazis had won World War II.
Coming back to the Redlands Symphony in 2013 — the “Better World” concert was rounded out with Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major. For me, a concert that includes any music by Brahms is making the world a better place.
Brahms’ violin concerto, written in 1878, is very familiar, but there’s so much meat in it that you don’t get tired of it.
Saturday night’s soloist was Svetlana Kosakovskaya, a violinist from Russia who graduated from the N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov St. Petersburg State Conservatory and has earned a master’s degree and performance certificates in the United States.
Kosakovskaya’s rich tone and fluid, musical playing made Memorial Chapel a better place to be Saturday night, and the orchestra played up a Brahmsian storm to match.
Music by Brahms is always harder than it sounds. It doesn’t wave its intricacies in the listener’s face like a red flag. Rather, if the performers conquer the difficulties, they make music that fills the soul.
Kosakovskaya and the Redlands Symphony served a full glass of Brahms.
Memorial Chapel, though, was not quite as full as it is for many Redlands Symphony concerts.
I don’t know if there were too many things going on in Redlands over the weekend or if some people were scared off by the prospect of music by Hindemith, a composer whose music doesn’t show up on symphony programs as anywhere near as often as that of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Debussy ... and the list could go on for several paragraphs.
But “Mathis der Maler” is nothing to shy away from, even though Hindemith’s music isn’t something you’d find yourself humming.
The music, depicting scenes from Matthias Gruenewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, ranges from furiously dramatic to quietly sorrowful, and all of it is full of beautiful orchestral colors.
And it’s a moving experience. You can hear war, tragedy and sorrow in “Mathis,” but also a touch of hope of that better world around the corner.
At least that’s what I heard in the Redlands Symphony’s performance. And much as I love Brahms — and as compelling as Kosakovskaya’s performance was — I’d have to say “Mathis der Maler” was my favorite on Saturday’s concert.
But I also enjoyed the opening of the concert, William Walton’s “Crown Imperial.” Anyone who’s seen photographs of George VI’s 1937 coronation can picture that ceremony while hearing the music. Or you might picture a much more recent ceremony, the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Or you can simply sit back and enjoy a majestic and melodic piece of music, one of many that does its bit to make the world a better place.
Music may not prevent wars or win them and it can’t make Congress vote on a budget, but think of all the things music can do for you and then imagine a world without music — any kind of music. I don’t think any of us would want to live there.
The Redlands Symphony Orchestra’s next musical offering is an all-Mozart concert on Nov. 23. For information, visit redlandssymphony.com or call 909-748-8018.
Betty Tyler has a master’s degree in music and has taught piano in Redlands.