HK Gruber’s critique of classical music with the NZSO a hit with a younger, if smaller, audience

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by HK Gruber and Håkan Hardenberger

Håkan Hardenberger – trumpet and HK Gruber – chansonnier

Kindersinfonie – ‘Toy Symphony’
Stravinsky: Circus Polka
HK Gruber: Aerial
Haydn: Symphony No. 22 in E flat major
HK Gruber: Frankenstein

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 10 October 2019, 7:30 pm

‘Why serious?’ the programme notes asks, presumably quoting HK Gruber. The music in this programme was meant to be fun. Gruber wanted to make music simple, approachable, and break down the demarcation between classical and popular music. Simplicity, however does not mean stupidity. Gruber’s models were Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler, and their iconoclastic music of Berlin of the 1920s. So this evening’s music was a long way from the usual symphonic fare, and the audience reflected this. There were empty seats and many of the regular followers of the orchestra were missing. In their place there were many children and young people, not a bad way of attracting a new generation to symphony concerts.

The first half of the concert was conducted by the composer, HK Gruber, with Hardenberger playing the solo, while in the second half, their roles were reversed, the trumpet soloist took over the baton and the composer took on the role of the Chansonnier, narrator.

Kindersinfonie: Toy Symphony

The concert opened with an old favourite of concerts for children, a work variously attributed to Haydn, Joseph or his brother, Michael, Leopold Mozart, or the largely unknown, Edmund Angerer. The music of short movements was written to be played outdoors as light street entertainment to amuse. In this concert the usual classical orchestra was augmented by a toy trumpet, a recorder playing the cuckoo, toy drum, a rattle and a triangle. This signalled what was to come in the rest of the programme.

Stravinsky Circus Polka

The Ringling Brothers and the Barnum and Bailey Circus commissioned Stravinsky to write a piece for 50 young elephants and 50 ballerinas to be choreographed by Balanchine. A couple of years later Stravinsky re-orchestrated the score originally written for a circus band and used a large orchestra, still retaining the sound of the circus performance, with resounding bass drum and crashing cymbals. At the end, with a touch of humour, he introduced Schubert’s March Militaire. All hilarious.

HK Gruber Aerial 

Aerial is a major symphonic work for the trumpet. It was commissioned by Hardenberger, and showcases the different musical attributes of the the trumpet with all its potential. It is a fine vehicle for a brilliant trumpet player and Hardenberger used an array of mutes as well as a piccolo trumpet and even a cow horn to highlight it against a colourful large orchestra that provided not a mere accompaniment but a foundation.

The work is in two parts, ‘two aerial views’ as Gruber describes it, an imaginary landscape beneath the Northern Lights. The first part bears an inscription from Emily Dickinson’s poem, Wild Nights: “Done with the compass, done with the chart”, the second is entitled Gone Dancing. The piece opens softly with an ethereal air, gradually evolving, making use of the resources of the large orchestra with its broad range of percussion. It is this brilliant interplay between the clusters of orchestral sound and the trumpet solo that gives this work its distinctive character. The slow first movement is followed by the energetic second movement with jazzy harmonies and musical quotations embracing the music of the whole last century. It has echoes of Stravinsky, Bernstein and the music of the 1940s. It is full of surprises that kept the audience alert.

Haydn Symphony No. 22 

The second half of the concert opened with an early Haydn symphony nicknamed ‘The Philosopher’. The orchestra was reduced in size to a small string section, with, unusually, two horns, two cor anglais and harpsichord. Haydn was a young man when he wrote this, developing the form that became his distinctive style of classical symphony. The sombre first movement, Adagio, is followed by a buoyant Presto a stately Menuet and Trio, and a high spirited Finale. A slight work played with style. Sandwiched in between the two large orchestral works of Gruber, this modest piece presented an interesting contrast, a respite from the high energy of the work that preceded it.

HK Gruber Frankenstein

Frankenstein is Gruber’s signature piece, his first breakthrough as an internationally recognised composer. He has performed it with major orchestras all over the world since its premier forty years ago. It is a strikingly original work. It is a sprechstimme, a work in which the spoken dialogue is strictly pitched as in a singing. The best known precedent for such a work is Schoenberg’s melodrama, Pierrot Luniare, but what a contrast. Gruber’s is irreverent, cynical, sarcastic, cruel. The text is children’s nursery rhymes, absurd, mocking, shocking, by the Austrian poet H. C. Artman. Originally written for a chamber music ensemble of 13 instruments in 1971, Gruber re-orchestrated it for a huge symphony orchestra with toy instruments, including kazoos, swanee whistles, honking car horns, a melodica, five paper bags, a bird warbler, and hose-pipes.

Enlarging an entertaining work for a small ensemble to a symphonic score is in itself a play on absurdity. Don’t take music too seriously, it is all meant to be fun. Gruber recited the text with great aplomb, earnestly to emphasize its absurdity, in English with clear dramatic diction. Has the text a deeper meaning? Can you read more into it than the words imply? Artman described the poems as being, among other things ‘covert political statements’. This however, doesn’t matter. It is pure entertainment. The poems are about figures in popular culture, demons, heroes, a female vampire, John Wayne, the actor, Robinson Crusoe, Superman, Batman and Robin, James Bond and Goldfinger and Frankenstein, the scientist, who is not a fearsome but a benign figure.

Both the orchestra and the audience entered into the spirit of the fun, and there was an exceptionally large ovation at the end of the performance.

The NZSO is to be commended for trying something quite different. The generous programme notes provided with the full text of the poems in translation and the context of the compositions added to the appreciation of the music.

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