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There’s Never An Eternal Verity Around When You Need One

New York
Zankel Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/03/2009 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Musical Joke: Divertimento in F, K. 522
Erik Satie: Cinéma (perforned with with René Clair's film Entr’acte) – Relâche (excerpts)
Paul Hindemith: Overture to Neues vom Tage (News of the day)
HK Gruber: Frankenstein!!

Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Ward Stare (Conductor), David Robertson (Village Stick-beater, Substitute Chansonnier, Polyvocal Actor, Music Director and Conductor)

David Robertson (© Scott Ferguson)

So you go to Carnegie Hall expecting at least a couple of Eternal Verities. Or, at the very least, a Heroic Affirmation or two. And what did we get last night? A conductor who kept missing his place, horn players who made all the wrong notes, a funeral cortege led by a camel, an upside-down ballerina, Batman and Robin having breakfast together, Superman putting on his pants, a baby vampire biting a baby, and a lot of kazoos, rainbow-colored water-hoses, a mouse transformed into a pistol-holster.

Oh, I almost forgot. John Wayne “with a casket for a basket.”

No joke this. Simply David Robertson, that most eclectic, unpredictable, insatiable-and—in an unexpected guest appearance—the most invigorating artist on any stage.

The entire program was perverse fun. Not a single piece if wholesome cheerful music, no Rustic Wedding Symphony or Poulenc concerto. No, the four works here were subversively fascinating. The supernal Mozart was composing for country bumpkins, the austere Hindemith was giving a jazzy overture, Erik Satie was… well, doing what he always did.

But HK Gruber, another eclectic musician—bass-player, conductor, actor, composer—was most impressive of all. Even when he didn’t show up. The Austrian’s flight was delayed, so conductor David Robertson took his place in reciting the English translations of “children’s poems” by H.C. Artmann.

The poems are less Dr. Seuss than Shel Silverstein, the characters were less Lewis Carroll than Roald Dahl and the Brothers Grimm. But Mr. Robertson, in a variety of voices, from falsetto to frightening basso, told the tales of rats and the titular Frankenstein!!, as well as John Wayne, various Dracula monsters and “a merry werewolf.” To hear Mr. Robertson lengthen out “a little mi-ma-monsterlet is dancing round our house," for almost three minutes (obviously imitating HK Gruber himself) is to hear words somersaulting from Hades to Elysium and back again.

The orchestra—including dozens of toy instruments—could probably be compared to Walton’s Façade. But Walton never asked his players to jump up with colored hosepipes, waving them around to make whirling sounds. Since Mr. Robertson was busy with his voices, the orchestra was led by a very jaunty Resident Conductor, Ward Stare.

For the opening work, the well-known Mozart Musical Joke, Maestro Robertson solved a musical dilemma. Few in an audience realize that virtually every single phrase is an offense against musical nature. The roars are usually reserve for the end, when the strings and horns totally collapse.

Mr. Robertson solved that problem by becoming “the village conductor”. He made every mistake in the conductor’s dicta, cueing the wrong instrument, waving hands together, losing his place, arguing with the first violin. One joke, when the horns leave their seats to play chess, was forced, but that was the only moment out of a bucolic comedy, Mozart’s equivalent of Shakespeare’s Pyramus and Thisbe.

(I always thought that the conductor of Mahler’s “country funeral” in the First Symphony should behave the same way, but nobody would dare!!)

The movie of the evening was the great René Clair's Entr’acte, a surrealistic, preposterous film of that aforesaid camel cortege, crazy chases, conjurers in coffins, and a chess game stopped by jets of water from nowhere. The film was entertaining, but Erik Satie—a kind of Warhol with humor—purposely made the music so commonplace that one paid little attention to the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

The penultimate work was an overture by the youthful Paul Hindemith, quite the scamp of the later 1920’s. It was the only comparatively straight piece of the evening, and Maestro Robertson played the bubbly piece with all the requisite froth.

Yet when it was all over, one remembered not the well-known composers but a few lines exhaled with great glee by Mr. Robertson, from the Gruber work:

“Frankenstein is dancing…with the test-tube lady…and my little daughter dear, it’s you!! it’s you…………….”

It was us. Thank you, David Robertson.

Harry Rolnick



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