MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Guest Review: Salzburg Christmas Concert


Paul Hindemith

London- and Seattle-based Tom Luce contributes the following review:

Faith, Despair, and Blasphemy: An Interestingly Different Salzburg Christmas Concert

Though Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace, ultimately drove the young composer away, the city has built a major tourist industry on its connection with him. Wherever you go, there are chocolate Mozarts and much touting of concerts of his music, even outside the prestigious Summer Festival or the “Mozart Week” each January.

In the run-up to Christmas in Salzburg, however, Mozart has to compete with two other icons. Most prominently, of course, there is the founder of the feast whose birth is celebrated with the full traditions of Austrian Catholicism — services, carols, and readings in the many churches and Christmas markets in every available city square. But, because he too hailed from the locality, there is also Joseph Mohr, author of the iconic carol “Stille Nacht, heilige  Nacht.’’  

It is this carol, usually sung with feeling, musical finesse, and at moderate volume levels, which dominates Christmas music in Salzburg’s public places. Those who in the festive season need constant and much louder reminders of jingling bells, reindeers with unusual aids to navigation, and White Christmas fantasies would be badly deprived in this city: For others it is a welcome refuge.

But on a visit a few days ago, it was music of a different stamp which provided my wife and me with our most profound cultural experience. We discovered — by chance because there seemed to be little publicity — that the student orchestra and vocal students from the Mozarteum, the distinguished local music conservatory, were  to give a concert (on 11 December) featuring music by Frank Martin, Alban Berg, and Paul Hindemith.

The programme was seasonal in being throughout concerned with the Christian religion, but hardly in a predictable way. It got off to a doctrinally orthodox start with Martin’s Six Monologues for Baritone and Orchestra, composed to texts from Jedermann — a reworking by Hugo von Hofmannsthal of the medieval English mystery play Everyman. This moving sequence takes a searching soul from fear of death through repentance to forgiveness through faith. It was followed by Alban Berg’s Three Fragments from Wozzeck (Marie’s admiration of the Drum Major in Act 1, her despairing invocation to the Virgin Mary in Act 3, and the opera’s concluding tragic passacaglia and bleak ending with her poor child abandoned). Finally, we had a semi-staged performance of Hindemith’s one-act opera Sancta Susanna, the story of sex in a nunnery which ends with the heroine snatching the loincloth from the figure of the crucified Christ and, to cries of “Satan” from her horrified conventual sisters, inviting eternal punishment. This iconoclastic work, in spirit as well musical style the opposite of Puccini’s saccharine Suor Angelica, created a great scandal when first given in 1922 and drew from the Vatican a complaint of blasphemy.

The programme was given to a very high standard. The orchestra’s delivery of these extremely demanding scores displayed great accomplishment. The vocal parts were sung with distinction: Fernando Araujo was the fine baritone in the Martin piece, Meredith Hoffmann Thomson made a deeply moving Marie, and Elizabeth de Roo and Julia Rath very successfully took the two main parts in the Hindemith opera. Hans Graf, formerly Music Director in Houston and now the Mozarteum’s chief conducting professor, presided inspirationally. The concert was to be repeated the next day, with student conductors and different student soloists.

On the showing of this ambitious concert, programmed with brilliant originality and superbly performed, the City of Salzburg, or at least its conservatory, maintains and continues to develop a musical culture of formidable professionalism, breadth of outlook, and openness of mind which may be truer to the legacy of its most-famous musical son than most casual tourists would realise when contemplating the conventionally bewigged and elegant figure represented on the chocolate Mozart wrappings.

–Tom Luce

Filed under: review

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Meredith Hoffmann-Thomson says:

    It’s so great that you happened to stumble upon our concert – certainly not everyone’s taste at christmastime! Just one correction: the conductor’s name is HANS Graf – Thanks for coming!!


%d bloggers like this: