Weirdly appropriate Halloween week fare from San Francisco Symphony

United StatesUnited States Herrmann, Bartók, Gruber: Christopher Purves (baritone), San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 28.10.2020. (HS)

Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and Christopher Purves playing the kazoo in HK Gruber’s Frankenstein © Brittany Hosea-Small

Bernard Herrmann – Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra
Bartók – Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin
HK Gruber – Frankenstein!!

Music director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Halloween-time program centered on music that, if it was not exactly scary, veered just weird and offbeat enough to be eerie.

Performed by the San Francisco Symphony in concerts leading up to the holiday, the focal point was HK Gruber’s Frankenstein!! The title might lead an audience to expect a retelling of Mary Shelley’s landmark novel about a mad scientist’s attempt to assemble his own human from spare parts (and the ensuing fallout). But no. It is a puckishly orchestrated collection of short, sly, doggerel-like poems that at first seem lightly amusing but hide a sneaky punch of dread.

Aside from one brief verse that addresses Dr Frankenstein and his monster (‘These lungs are from a criminal, and the brilliant brain as well’ is one key line), the short poems focus on a range of popular figures, among them John Wayne, Goldfinger, Robinson Crusoe, Superman, Dracula (but as a woman) and some pesky rodents.

Veteran British baritone Christopher Purves, whose recent roles include Balstrode at Bavarian State Opera and Alberich in Siegfried for Zurich Opera House, intoned the poems like a demented children’s storyteller, occasionally accompanying himself with slide whistles and other toy instruments. Clad in black tie and black kilt, Purves alternately spoke and sang, veering from bass-like low notes to comic falsettos.

The poems were written in 1968 and translated into English by Harriet Watts from H. C. Artmann’s original German for Gruber’s inventive score, which debuted in 1977. The large orchestra added tongue-in-cheek color, including a wonderful crescendo and fadeout of eerily harmonized hoses whipped around by members of the orchestra, poppings of paper bags as percussion and a surprisingly sweet duet involving a solo trombone and Purves on kazoo. Occasional dissonances added punch to often simple-minded tunes.

The opening Fanfare and Prologue set the tone, the mock majesty in the brass introducing a sing-songy tune for the line, ‘little mouse, little mouse…how he nibbles at my eye’. Another verse uses repetition and a frantic accelerando to twist the line ‘a little mi-ma monsterlet is dancing round our house’, as Purves relished the ensuing chaos. Sexual undertones found their way into ’Superman’ and ‘Batman and Robin’, delivered straight-faced and with innocent music (at least on the surface).

This was all too much for the woman seated behind me at Friday evening’s performance. Several times during the 35-minute piece she remarked loudly to her seat mate, ‘I’m walking out of here’. Nevertheless, she stayed till the end despite her threats. I think Gruber would have loved it.

Various non-musical elements tied this work to the other items on the program. The opener was Bernard Herrmann’s indelible score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, an allusion to the classic 1931 horror film Frankenstein which starred Boris Karloff. In between those two juicy items came Bela Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, which had debuted in Germany only five years before the Frankenstein film.

Salonen’s approach to Herrmann’s expressive lushness and Bartók’s thorny but colorful music continued a trend that has been apparent in earlier concerts this fall. In particular, he seemed intent on revving things up with pedal-to-the-metal buildups to big orchestral climaxes.

He got a nice bounce to the rhythmic insistence of the opening music from Psycho while bringing out the sinister undertone that gave the film score its impact, as did the screeching violins (remember the shower scene?). Herrmann even reprises that near the end of the 15-minute suite. The orchestration’s weight and plentitude of dissonant color made it a musically appropriate companion to the Bartók.

Salonen dug into the clashing colors from Bartók’s flashy music for the lurid story of the ballet, in which a prostitute lures a series of men for her thug partners to rob and murder. The music for the last one, a wealthy Chinese figure who refuses to die until he consummates what he came for, gets increasingly agitated, and Salonen punched it big-time to a crashing finish.

The woman behind me proved how effective that actually was. As the lights came up for intermission she opined, loudly, ‘This is a horrible program’.

Harvey Steiman

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