A trio for viola, piano, and heckelphone.
It sounds like the punch line of a joke, or perhaps something out of Dr. Seuss. But the heckelphone is a real instrument (a woodwind, a distant cousin to the oboe) and the trio a real piece, written in 1928 by the composer Paul Hindemith. Perhaps not surprisingly, concert performances are infrequent.
But if you’ve been dying to hear the trio live, your ship will finally come in on Sunday. That’s when the Nix Ensemble, an inventive group of three recent New England Conservatory graduates — violist Maureen
Heflinger, pianist Chris Gamboa, and oboist Gwen Buttemer — will present Project Heckelmith, a program that includes the trio and excerpts from other Hindemith chamber works,
interspersed with a reading of a wild comic play the composer wrote in his 20s.
So the trio and its strange-sounding instrument are no joke. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of humor in the concert, which was funded in part by a grant from NEC’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship department. Indeed, one of the Nix Ensemble’s goals is to throw some light on the humorous aspects of Hindemith, a composer whose music — densely contrapuntal, acidly tonal — usually carries an air of dour earnestness.
Yet Hindemith was also known in his time as something of a mischief maker. He did, after all, write a piece whose title can be translated as “Overture to the ‘Flying Dutchman’ as Played on Sight by a Bad Spa Orchestra by the Village Well at 7 in the Morning.”
“My overall feeling is that most people take his music way too seriously,” said Heflinger during a recent phone conversation with the trio from an NEC studio. “I’ve had so many moments when I’m rehearsing or practicing something and I feel that it’s absolutely hilarious. I’d had a feeling for many years that Hindemith had a great sense of humor.”
Her sense was confirmed a few years when ago when a former teacher sent her a magazine article about a play Hindemith had written in 1920 called “Der Bratschenfimmel,” which translates roughly as “Viola Mania.” She managed to track down an English translation that will be used for Sunday’s performance.
As Heflinger summarizes the play, it’s about a man who works at a bank who also plays the viola. He comes to hate his boss and begins devising an especially gruesome way to kill him. Finally he hits on the solution: death by modern music. “And he decides, I will unlearn how to do everything I ever learned how to do on the viola,” she said. “I will practice ‘anti-viola playing’ until my viola playing is so terrible it becomes lethal.”
The play also has some raunchy humor, which explains why, in Nix Ensemble’s poster for the event, Hindemith’s image has been grafted onto that of a toilet. “It really plays into the finale,” said Heflinger, somewhat mysteriously. Buttemer added that since the play calls for a large cast, the ensemble will be enlisting the audience’s participation.
Back to that heckelphone, whose name comes from its inventor, Wilhelm Heckel. According to Buttemer, it’s similar to a bass oboe, with a buzzy sound and a range that puts it between that of an oboe and a bassoon. Only about two dozen exist in North America, she said, all in the hands of performers unwilling to loan them out. So Buttemer instead procured a bass oboe and learned the fingerings. “Which was definitely a stretch, and difficult at times. But it’s pretty fun to play.”
Buttemer said that she’s enjoyed working on the piece because of its compositional depth. “Every time we rehearse we find something new — the contrapuntal complexities and how they fit together.” That also applies to the opening movement of Hindemith’s sonata for oboe and piano, also on the program. “There are a lot of cross-rhythms, and a lot of times you don’t know where the beat is,” she said. “It’s very exact and things line up, but you’re not always sure exactly where you are.”
“Would you say it requires a little bit of faith?” Heflinger interjected.
“Definitely,” Buttemer answered.
Gamboa is also playing two movements from Hindemith’s First Piano Sonata, a lengthy piece inspired by the Main River in Germany. “Hindemith really lets loose his expressive writing in this piece,” he said. In part, the sonata is about “how expressive the piano sound can be.”
Heflinger is playing two movements from a sonata for solo viola Hindemith composed in 1922, just two years after the play. In the sonata’s fourth movement, an unruly perpetual motion machine, she hears some of the madcap energy of “Der Bratschenfimmel.” “I heard that Hindemith originally wrote it as an exercise in string crossings and would play it slowly. Then one day he got the idea that it would be fun to play it as fast as possible.”
At the beginning of that movement, the composer gives a direction that has one final bit of humor. “Beauty of tone,” he wrote, “is secondary.”