HK Gruber Leads a Thrilling 20th-Century Program

United StatesUnited States Antheil, Gruber, Bernstein, and Stravinsky: Michael A. Werner (percussion), Seattle Symphony, HK Gruber (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 18.4.2013 (BJ)

Antheil: A Jazz Symphony
Gruber: Rough Music
Bernstein: Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront
Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite

Everyone knows and loves the music of the First Viennese School—you know, the big guys: Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert. Fewer people are familiar with—and a select few love—the 20th-century Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg and his star pupils, Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

Not yet even as familiar as those worthies is today’s Third Viennese School, whose most successful representative is HK Gruber. The 12-tone element in his music is an obvious legacy from the Schoenberg school, but that is only one side of the highly personal language he has forged. At first blush, Gruber’s use of tonality might seem to align him with the movement that has been dubbed “the New Simplicity.” But tonal structures and popular idioms coexist with serial ones in his music in a totality that, for all the apparent simplicity of some elements, is very far from simple-minded.

A former member of the Vienna Boys Choir, known to friends and colleagues by the nickname “Nali,” HK has among his ancestors Franz Xaver Gruber, the inoffensive 19th-century church organist who wrote Silent Night, and who would certainly be shocked at the often wild musical exploits of his descendent. Though no longer active as a bass-player, today’s Gruber still triples as composer, conductor, and chansonnier. In the last-named capacity, he has traveled the world heading several hundred performances of Frankenstein!!, his 1976/77 “pan-demonium for baritone-chansonnier and orchestra,” sometimes singing it in German, and at other times, with his deliciously accented brand of English, sounding even more exuberantly and indelibly Austrian.

It was with his composer and conductor hats on that Gruber made his Seattle Symphony debut, and a rousing good time was had by all. Rough Music, his 1983 percussion concerto, takes its title from the English term for a boisterous ancient French folk custom also known in various parts of the world as “charivari,” “shivaree,” and “toberac.” A work indeed of considerable complexity, it intersperses delicate lines on tuned instruments with explosions of rhythmic and dynamic high jinks—entertaining, yet fraught with desperately serious undertones. In his most violent passages, creating a sense of chaos that is yet held under magisterial control, Gruber sounds rather like a more sophisticated and technically proficient Charles Ives. And wielding the meticulously clear beat of a thoroughly experienced conductor, he drew from the obviously energized orchestra a deft and atmospheric setting around principal percussionist Michael A. Werner’s spectacular account of the solo part.

Gruber proved equally adept in evoking the vernacular American rhythmic zest of the symphonic suite from Bernstein’s film score for On the Waterfront, framed by touchingly lonely solos from principal horn Jeffrey Fair, and the Russo-French romanticism of Stravinsky’s Firebird suite, which was played in its 1919 version. The program had opened with A Jazz Symphony, by George Antheil (1900-1959), self-styled “bad boy of music, and in his way no less a maverick than Gruber himself. It’s a diverting trifle, which sounds fresh and individual even in the somewhat toned-down orchestration and texture of the 1955 revision we heard on this occasion.

Coming straight after the previous week’s superb Mozart and Bruckner under Gerard Schwarz, the equally thrilling performances of 20th-century music that Gruber fashioned served to emphasize the Seattle Symphony’s broad stylistic range, as well as a technical excellence that deserves wider international recognition.

Bernard Jacobson

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.