Juneau Symphony: Multi-media homage to artistic resistance

Symphony based on opera that forced composer Paul Hindemith to flee Nazi Germany

Posted: Thursday, January 30, 2003

On the Isenheim Altarpiece painted by 16th century German painter Matthais Grunewald, a symphony of pudgy angels plays for the Madonna as she cradles a glowing newborn Jesus. The Madonna probably will not be in attendance at this weekend's concert by the Juneau Symphony but, thanks to acoustic upgrades at Centennial Hall, the symphony should at least sound angelic as it plays a work based on religious painter Grunewald's life.

"If there is one thing I want to get out, it is that you don't have to be afraid to see the symphony at Centennial Hall," said Director Kyle Wiley Pickett. "We have made improvements that make it a great place to see a live symphony."

"Secrets," a concert by the Juneau Symphony, begins at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1, at the hall. A pre-concert "Concert Conversation" with Pickett will begin at 7 p.m. Tickets - $16 general admission, $13 for students/seniors, $8 for children - are available at Hearthside Books or at the door (for $2 more).

The concert will feature "Symphonie Mathis de Maler" written about Grunewald by Paul Hindemith, as well as "Overture to La Gazza Ladra" by Gioacchino Rossini, and "Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra" by Johannes Brahms. During "Symphonie," giant screens will display Grunewald's paintings, while actors will read words from Hindemith's opera, from which the symphony music was taken.

"In the symphony world I don't think we should be afraid to give people a little more to hang onto," said Pickett. "Especially if (the piece of music) is a little less familiar like this one."

"Symphonie" has a particularly interesting, multi-layered history. Hindemith wrote the symphony in 1933 during a time in Nazi Germany when all artwork was controlled and censored by the government. Work by Jewish artists was banished and themes of rebellion were verboten.

Hindemith's subtly resistant symphony was lifted from his opera about Grunewald, who joined the peasant revolt during the Reformation, only to have his idealism destroyed by the acts of violence committed by the peasants. The three movements are based on individual paintings on an altarpiece in the church of St. Anthony in Isenheim, Germany - "Angelic Concert," "Entombment" and "Temptation of St. Anthony."

"Symphonie's" singular performance in Nazi-occupied Berlin met with great public acclaim, but put Hindemith in danger.

"The Nazis didn't like the opera," Pickett said. "Hindemith had to flee the country."

Hindemith lived in exile in the United States where he taught composition until his death.

On The Web

To see Matthais Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece:


For more about Paul Hindemith: www.hindemith.org

The symphony will again bring Polish musicians Mateusz Woloski and Michal Palzewicz, a violinist and a cellist respectively, to play a rare double concerto by Brahms. Woloski and Palzewicz, who have performed with the symphony before, have been playing together since they were 8-year-olds in Poland. Members of Elsner String Quartet, they won a music competition that took them to New York, where they so impressed members of the classical music community they were awarded full scholarships to the Manhattan Academy of Music. The quartet recently disbanded after nearly nine years together.

"We have the opportunity to get talented people on their way up, when they are young and cheap," Pickett said. "Someday we will be able to say we heard them first in Juneau."

Palzewicz, 28, said he has been practicing the Brahms concerto since he was 16 and looks forward to performing the difficult piece, which he called "very uplifting."

"There is something in the themes that Brahms uses that can change your spiritual state instantaneously," Palzewicz said.

• Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

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