Neoclassical Temperaments

Jules Langert on March 27, 2007
Everything came together beautifully in the finale of Thursday’s concert by the New Century Chamber Orchestra at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, and it was Paul Hindemith’s strikingly original concerto for piano and strings, The Four Temperaments, that was the catalyst. Composed in 1940 as a dance score for George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet, it became a signature work for the company in Balanchine’s distinctive choreography, and remains in their repertory to this day. Hindemith’s music is in something of an eclipse at the moment. Although this composition is seldom heard as a concert piece, it holds up remarkably well on its own. Its elaborate opening theme, in several sections, is followed by four ample variations, each of which is portrayed as one of the classical Greek temperaments, or “humors” — melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic, and choleric. Hindemith’s orderly, neoclassical style encompasses the emotionally unruly temperaments by engaging the piano and strings in a series of dialogues, which are often intense, sometimes fanciful, and occasionally light-hearted. Pianist William Wolfram combined elegance and clarity in his playing, with the virile, propulsive energy and mercurial shifts of mood needed to make this music come to life. The string ensemble, led by guest violinist Stephanie Chase, handsomely contributed their share in some of the more lyrical, introspective interludes, and Chase’s solos added greatly to the melodic richness of the performance. Only in a few of the more rambunctious passages was there any sense of uncertainty in the ensemble. The program began rather inauspiciously, with Max Bruch’s Serenade on Swedish Melodies, a blandly innocuous suite of five movements. It is difficult to believe that they were composed in 1916, and they totally lack the charm and imaginative vitality of pieces in this genre by such composers as Brahms, Grieg, Dvorák, Janácek, and Holst. Also on the program was the premiere of Rolling Strings, by UC Berkeley composer Jorge Liderman on a commission from the New Century Chamber Orchestra. The piece featured chains of repeated eighth-note patterns with generally homophonic textures, and seemed unwilling to venture past an unduly limited range of possibilities. A broader, more spontaneous selection of rhythms and a freer use of melody and/or counterpoint could have made this into a much more engrossing and stimulating experience. As Hindemith’s concerto showed, one way to achieve such a result would be to grapple with a more demanding set of temperaments.