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.

Wellington Chamber Orchestra with rewarding and interesting music from Britain and Armenia

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Ian Ridgewell, with Matthew Stein (trumpet)

Gerald Finzi: The Fall of the Leaf, Op.20
Alexander Arutiunian: Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra
Charles Villiers Stanford: Symphony no.3, “The Irish”, in F minor, Op.28

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 9 December 2018, 2:30 pm

It was tempting to describe this as a concert of unfamiliar twentieth-century music, however the symphony was composed and first performed in the 1880s.

An enthusiastic audience filled the church to hear this interesting programme, that began with the rather elusive, indefinite opening of the Finzi work.  This had once been intended to be part of a symphony, but it never eventuated, and after many years, the work was completed by a friend of Finzi’s after the latter’s death.  (Finzi’s dates: 1901-1956).

Like much of the composer’s work, it was gentle, nostalgic, and full of beautiful orchestral colours and melodies.  After the opening, a cor anglais gave a folksong-like melody, followed by the horns, then pizzicato strings and harp, the latter deliciously played by Michelle Velvin.  There was a superb passage for violas, sounding deep and resonant.  There was more superb writing for the cor anglais; no wonder it’s called the English horn!

The work revealed a considerable variety of dynamics.  All in all, it was most agreeable music.

The conductor for this concert was an Englishman, now resident in Wellington, and involved in music education.  I was intrigued with his conducting style; he held a baton, but, like many conductors, did not use the stick independently – it was simply an extension of his right hand.  I had just heard a couple of days before, a radio interview with visiting conductor Nicholas McGegan, here to conduct the NZSO (plus choir and soloists) in Handel’s Messiah.  He does not use a stick, and said that the white stick was used in past times to make the conductor’s beat visible in candle-lit auditoriums.  Since these days such places are lit by electric lighting, he saw no reason to use one.

The main drawback to the concert was the relatively small size of the venue, and its resonance.  Wellington desperately needs back the Town Hall and the Ilott Theatre, the latter being of a suitable size for this orchestra, which on Sunday numbered 59 players.  Too much sound, especially from the brass, can be pretty hard on the ears, and this was the case on Sunday.  The cymbals were simply deafening; fortunately they were not used frequently.

Alexander Arutiunian lived from 1920 to 2012; his trumpet concerto was composed in 1950 and is probably his best-known work internationally, although he had a busy composing, teaching and performing life in Armenia and the Soviet Union generally.

In Matthew Stein we had a superb soloist, not long  returned from study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where he was a prizewinner.  (Pity he was listed on the back of the printed programme as ‘Piano’!)

His playing was brilliant.  The work was played without a break, but there are definite ‘movements’, with different tempi (Wikipedia gives five movements).  Subtle changes of dynamics were a feature throughout.  Its beginning was fast and furious for the orchestra, yet revealed many different colours.  The clarinet had plenty of sequences in the sun.  Occasionally the orchestra was too loud for the soloist to be easily heard.

After a very loud, repetitive section from the orchestra, the music became quiet and reflective, the soloist using a  mute (the second movement).  The music here was calm and somewhat wistful in character.  Here, the strings’ intonation was wayward, but generally, the playing was fine.  Along came lovely harp ripples, and more prominent clarinet episodes.

The strings got worked up in an insistent rhythmic pattern, and there was a general crescendo as the soloist’s removal of his mute signified another movement.  Extraverted phrases came from the soloist; the flute and percussion made fanciful contributions in this very fast movement.  As elsewhere, there was plenty of work for trombones and tuba.

A brilliant cadenza from the trumpet broke forth, with varied dynamics and rhythms, and featuring trills, all executed with skill and apparent ease.

The audience gave this performance a well-deserved rousing reception.  It was an exciting and varied work, played with élan.

My friend and I moved to the back of the church in the interval, which rendered the brass fortissimo into forte or mezzo-forte.

Irish-born Stanford (1852-1924) was once highly regarded as a symphonist, but is now mainly known for his choral music, particularly his church music.  Much of this repertoire is beautiful an appealing.  One of the reasons we can be grateful to him is for his teaching and developing the talents of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Ireland, Frank Bridge (teacher of Benjamin Britten) and many others, as a teacher at music college and university.

A link with the other composers in the programme is the fact that all used folk-like melodies from their countries of origin; not necessarily actual known melodies, although  some genuine Irish ones are said to be present in this Stanford work.  Certainly the opening of the work sounded like one such.

The strings were a little shaky here, but things settled down again.  There were felicitous phrases, and some grand melodies in an Elgarian vein.  The composer’s orchestration was splendid, with an imaginative variety of use of the instruments.  However, I did not think the orchestra played as well in this work as they had in the Finzi.

The music was easy on the ear.  A passage with pizzicato strings and woodwind melodies over the top gave a slightly spooky atmosphere; were there leprechauns about?

The second movement had a sprightly tempo (or should that be spritely, being Irish?), that fell into a quick march, with brass to the fore.  Then a change of mood and rhythm brought a lilting lyrical section, but still with a lot of brass.  Then we were back to the march, followed by an abrupt ending.

The third movement started with the harp (significant, of course, in Irish music).  This was gorgeous, and was soon joined by flutes and clarinet.  These were ethereal sounds, into which the oboe entered, adding its piquancy.  Strings were sotto voce, horns too contributed to the other-worldly aesthetic.  A swaying theme developed, like a slow dance.

More woodwind melodies ensued, then the brass joined in a crescendo with a very four-square theme which I found rather too insistent, saying “Look out for us!  Here we come!”

While I love some of Stanford’s choral music (notably The Blue Bird), I wouldn’t declare this symphony ripe for widespread resurrection, whereas the other works on the programme could certainly stand more frequent airings.  Nonetheless, there were many lovely elements in the work, of which the harp episodes were among the most mellifluous.

The final movement was faster again, and featured more spooky pizzicato, this time on cellos and double-basses, to great effect.  This section ended like a folk-song, before the music became quite rumbustious, making a very positive declaration (what a contrast to much twentieth-century composition!).  Next was a hymn-like tune, which could well be a traditional Irish melody.  Not all the brass coped well here.  The music came close to pomposity.  However, Stanford’s orchestration was splendid.  A rousing, tuneful ending was triple forte, to send us on our way.


Unorthodox organist Christopher Hainsworth with brilliant late trumpeter Nicolas Planchon

Chris Hainsworth, organ, Julien Hainsworth, cello (1) Nicolas Planchon, trumpet (2)
Two recitals, the first supported by the Maxwell Fernie Trust

Charpentier: Te Deum (1&2);
Torelli: Concerto in D (2);
Handel: Uncelebrated Largo (1);
Albinoni: Other Adagio (1);
Purcell: Not Famous Trumpet Voluntary (1);
Fauré: Pavane (1);
Anderson, George: The Battle of Waterloo, 1815 (1);
Verdi/Arban: Fantasy on La Traviata (2);
Takle, Mons: Power of Life (1)
Cool Selection: ‘In umbral colours’ (including theme from Lord of the Rings, Monti’s Czardas; 1); Tribute to Wellington Weather (‘Summer Time’ from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess; 2)
Other items introduced to the programme are mentioned in the text below.

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Sunday, 8 February 2015 (1), 3pm, Monday 9 February, 1pm (2)

A concert of two halves, the result of trumpeter Nicolas Planchon being held up, courtesy of airlines, in Dubai.  The outcome for the sizeable audience on Sunday afternoon was a recital that included the organist’s cellist son playing a borrowed cello and downloaded music.  A free concert was announced for the following lunchtime, by which hour the absent trumpeter would have arrived.  Inevitably, not so many people could avail themselves of this opportunity, which was a pity.

The Sunday recital supported the  Maxwell Fernie Trust, which assists young organists.

It began with Charpentier’s Te Deum, the only piece to be played on both days.  If we couldn’t have a real trumpet on Sunday, we nevertheless could have the trumpet stop on the organ, which sounded very fine, and the playing produced lovely contrasts.  Some of the tuning of the reed pipes was a little bit out; perhaps due to the humid afternoon.

Jean-Baptiste Barrière (1707 – 1747) was a French cellist and composer.  In place of the prescribed trumpet concerto, on Sunday we had a Larghetto for organ and cello by the French composer.  A solemn piece, it was beautifully executed.  The gallery was surprisingly resonant for the stringed instrument; Julien Hainsworth made a delightful sound.  The accompaniment was a very simple affair.

After a spoken introduction, Chris Hainsworth played a Handel Largo from one of the organ concertos; he labeled it the “Uncelebrated Largo”, with his usual ironic sense of humour.  The Fagotto pipes seemed to have some extraneous vibrations going on, alongside the low notes.  Though uncelebrated, the piece eminently justified its place in the programme.

The “Other Adagio” followed, this time in fact by Albinoni, and not a doctored later construction as was the famous one.  It proved to be a charming and appealing piece of baroque music.   Purcell’s “Not famous Trumpet Voluntary” was a lively addition to the programme, that gave the trumpet stop a good roll.

Staying with the baroque, Julien Hainsworth played the well-known Prelude to J.S. Bach’s first cello suite, demonstrating lovely tone.

For something completely different, we had, for the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, the piece of that name.  Despite neither Wikipedia nor Grove listing any compositions by this nineteenth-century Master of the Queen’s Music, Chris Hainsworth described and produced for us one of the most bombastic, patriotic, rumpty-tum pieces of music I’ve ever heard, complete with aural descriptions of battle between the British and Prussians against Napoleon’s French’ rejoicing, lamentation for the slain (this section very ‘churchy’), complete with cannonade and appropriate vocal interjections.

Another import to the programme necessitated by circumstance was a Vivaldi cello sonata.  Despite the exigencies of their situation, the performers played the gentle, slow opening with great delicacy and accuracy.  The fast second movement featured the same characteristics, despite the tempo, and the final movement, again slow, had quite a wistful or even lamenting air to it.   The cellist gave very clean execution of the ornaments.

The fast finale demonstrated very fine, accomplished and musical playing from both performers, especially noteworthy considering the almost impossibly short notice; Chris Hainsworth told the audience that they had last played the Vivaldi 10 years ago!

“Mons Leidvin Takle. born: 1942. country: Norway … ‘He brings enthusiasm and boundless energy to whatever repertoire he tackles.”  I couldn’t resist copying this Internet entry.  I had never heard of the
composer before.  This piece was written for the fortieth wedding anniversary of his sister, we were told.  It was a rumbustious organ piece, a forte both in dynamics and performance.  There was plenty of vigour, and dynamic variation.

I’m giving way to temptation to say “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’  It reminded me of the
hurdy-gurdy my friends and I had heard played the previous day, at Pataka in Porirua, as part of the Festival of the Elements.

For the ‘Cool Selection’ Chris mentioned ‘umbral colours’.  Some of the themes he played were familiar to me, others not.  Vittorio Monti’s Czardas was an appropriately jubilant way to end the recital.

Next day, the diminished audience heard in a little over half-an-hour those works from the original programme that had to be postponed on Sunday.  The Charpentier now featured live trumpet, and what a player! Not only could the organ open up more with the trumpet as soloist, but what a great sound Nicolas Planchon produced!

The Torelli concert (allegro-largo-allegro) was a jubilant piece, with much brilliant work for the trumpet.  The slow movement opened with what initially sounded like that used by Barber in his famous Adagio for Strings.  The lively, even bouncy, finale complete a most satisfying work.

Cécile Chaminade (1857 – 1944) is one of the few women composers to be heard reasonably often.   Her Pastorale for organ employs rather conventional nineteenth-century harmonies, but is attractive nonetheless.

Fauré’s well-known Pavane received a most beautiful rendition on trumpet and organ.  The arrangement (by one of the performers?) began with the muted trumpet, with which Planchon made a most beautiful sound.  The middle section was sans mute; the last part again with mute.
The result was magical.

The major work was Fantasy on Verdi’s La Traviata by Joseph Jean-Baptiste Laurent Arban (1825 –1889).  To say that this was très difficile for the trumpeter, is an understatement.  He revealed wonderful control of his instrument.  I’ve never thought of the trumpet as subtle, but here is was. After the statement of several themes from the opera, the virtuoso stuff started – variations putting great demands on the player, all of which he fully met.

Chris Hainsworth announced the last item as a tribute to Wellington’s weather.  What was our surprise on hearing Gershwin’s Summertime, elegantly and artistically played, again with the initial announcement of the theme by the muted trumpet.

Despite the extraordinary circumstances, those of us lucky enough to attend on both days heard a great variety of music superbly performed.


Soprano, trumpet and organ aid lunchtime digestion

Handel: ‘The Trumpet’s Loud Clangour’ (from Ode to St Cecilia’s Day)
Bach/Gounod: ‘Ave Maria’
Saint-Saëns: ‘Ave Maria’
Mozart: ‘Laudate Dominum’ (from Vesperae Solennes de Confessore)
Handel: Trumpet Concerto in G minor
Fauré: ‘Pie Jesu’ (from Requiem)
Stanley: Trumpet Voluntary
Handel: ‘Let the Bright Seraphim’ (from Samson)

Clarissa Dunn (soprano)
Paul Rosoman (organ and piano)
Andrew Weir (trumpet)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 17 November 2010, 12.15pm

With an interesting programme for an unusual combination, this programme had added appeal for the opportunity to hear and see someone we know as a disembodied voice on radio; Clarissa Dunn is a presenter for Radio New Zealand Concert.

The recital began and ended with performances from the gallery, using the fine church organ.  Clarissa Dunn proved to have a full, florid voice with a velvety quality except in the highest register.  She could hold her own against the organ; Handel did not make her compete with the trumpet part in the first piece.

The well-known Gounod arrangement of Bach’s prelude by the addition of a melody on the words ‘Ave Maria’ received a rather mushy organ registration – but perhaps that was appropriate for Gounod.  Unfortunately the singer sang some of the time just slightly under the note, spoiling an otherwise good performance, which ended with delicious pianissimo.

There were no intonation problems in Saint-Saëns’s setting of the same words.  This was sung from the front of the church, with a rather pedestrian and over-pedalled piano accompaniment – perhaps the sudden switch from organ affected the playing.  A good point was that the lid was down; often at St Andrew’s recently the sound from the piano has been too loud, due to the resonance from the varnished wooden floor.

The trumpet stood in for the mezzo-soprano of the original setting.  Andrew Weir’s control of volume when playing with the soprano was exemplary.  Both performers proved to have excellent control of breath and dynamics.  Flowing lines were beautifully carried on the breath by the singer.

The exquisite ‘Laudate Dominum’ of Mozart was sung admirably, given the limitations of performing with piano rather than orchestra.

A trumpet concerto by Handel followed (which I cannot find in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians); this time the organ part was played on the baroque organ at the front of the church.  The balance between the instruments was splendid , and the use of a two-foot stop in the fast second movement gave a charming effect.  The playing was commendably light and baroque in style, making for a thoroughly enjoyable performance.

Now for something completely different: the delightful ‘Pie Jesu’ of Fauré, sung with organ from the gallery.  Again, some notes were a shade flat, and there was some unevenness towards the end, but on the whole the singing was most accomplished.

John Stanley’s piece showed both trumpet and organ off well, in its bouncy, eighteenth century manner, but it is a rather uninspired piece of music.

Handel’s ‘Let the bright seraphim’ made a rousing end to the recital.  At the beginning I found the organ a little too loud, but it soon modified, and Clarissa Dunn was vocally equal to it.  Both trumpet and singer had their trills all in place; the organ-playing was very fine also.  The words were not clear, but they a difficult to get over in such a florid work.

It was a pity to have neither programme notes nor brief biographies of the performers.  However, Clarissa Dunn gave spoken introductions to the works, in an informal, engaging manner.

I hope to hear more from these three accomplished performers, who are to be congratulated on their interesting and varied programme.