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Bells, Whistles and a Few Popped Paper Bags

New York
Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, Metropolitan Museum of Art
12/16/2011 -  & December 17, 2011
Alexandre Lunsqui: Fibers, Yarn and Wire (World Premiere/New York Philharmonic Commission)
Magnus Lindberg: Gran Duo
HK Gruber: Frankenstein!!

John Schaefer (Host), HK Gruber (Chansonnier)
Members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Conductor)

HK Gruber, A. Gilbert (© Herring Rollmop)

From an audience viewpoint, Alan Gilbert’s brilliant series, “CONTACT!, The New Music Series at The Met Museum” separates the Shleps from the Coteries

Regular NY Phil evenings are inhabited by a good proportion of New Yorkers who are shlep along to applaud familiar names and or tolerate the unknown. But “CONTACT!” audience at the the Metropolitan Museum of Art are inhabited by Coteries of the new, the rare, the unheard and the challenging.

The ensembles are from the NY Phil, but rarely include the whole orchestra. No DWM (Dead White Male) composers are represented. They are not only alive, but they fly to the Museum, where learned interlocutor John Schaefer questions and interviews them. Neither Alan Gilbert nor his players wear standard regalia, instead becoming men (and women) in black.

The main thing, though, is that these players and this conductor are working on music which is new to them and new to the enthusiastic and always involved audience.

Last night, the trio of composers had nothing in common. Magnus Lindberg, previously the NY Phil’s composer-in-residence, and one of the pre-eminent writers in the world, had one of his early works. The young Brazilian Alexandre Lunsqui’s creationg–which include Brazilian music, jazz improvisation, and electronic–was commissioned by the orchestra for a world premiere. HK Gruber, the Austrian bass player, singer, actor and composer, wrote the iconic Frankenstein!! for some ghoulish children’s poems. The performance, with rare exceptions, belongs to him, for he sings, acts, plays a variety of instruments, and cloaks himself in the poems the way Boris Karloff cloaked himself as the original unnamed monster.

His virtual monopoly is not entirely true. When the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra visited here to perform Frankenstein!! with HK Gruber two years ago, the composer/chansonnier had missed his plane. Conductor David Robertson took the role–and it was electrifying. He was hilariously funny, he gave the illusion of improvisation, he played all the toy instruments, and he was warm and appealing.

HK Gruber, who really is a fine composer (his Aerial trumpet concerto is a masterwork), obviously is the expert in knowing how the series of ghoulish poems should be read. He is a brilliant mime, he syncs perfectly with the wacky instruments of the orchestra, he is the perfect actor–but last night, he was also the perfect robot.

His persona was not so much the Austrian composer enlivening the words, as the Joel Gray character from Cabaret. Yes, the poems are nasty, brutal, sadistic, but Mr. Gruber’s interlocutor/singer/monologuist gilded his poison tart by becoming the golem, brilliant but frigid.

Still, this is one helluva 30-minute piece, a weird combination of Mozart père’s “Toy” Symphony, Walton’s Facade and Ligeti’s Grand Macabre. Since Alan Gilbert’s performance of the latter last year was so brilliant, he had no problem dancing, swaying, singing and even making the Sign of the Cross with the rest of his orchestra. They in turn responded with bird-warblers (an Australian Aborigine instrument), toy car horns, ocarinas, toy saxophones, bells, whistles and paper bags blown up and popped

It was certainly the most ear-popping visually exciting work of the evening, and the two works preceding seemed...well, rather too cerebral.

A. Lunsqui (© Herring Rollmop)

No, that wasn’t exactly true for Alexandre Lunsqui’s Fibres, Yarn and Wire. Not so much an orchestra as an ensemble of soloists (including “clarinet, bass clarinet, trombones and trumpets doubling on small whistles”), it was a tapestry of luscious sounds, instruments handing over its colors to each other, and working in an unconscious set of dance rhythms.

Comparing the Brazilian composer to Villa-Lobos would be as fatuous as comparing Magnus Lindberg to Sibelius. But I couldn’t help thinking of Villa-Lobos’ rainforest atmospheric film score to the rare Audrey Hepburn film Green Mansions.

Mr. Lindberg himself was represented by his early Gran Duo. And Grand was the word. Thirteen brass, 11 winds, a single movement which contrasted the two, which made large blocks of sound that were probably logical and musically beyond reproach.

I confess to losing the threads of the music in the middle, but enjoyed watching the orchestra at work. This is hardly an astute comment, but my fascination was seeing bass trombone, tuba, trumpet and piccolo trumpet changing mutes every few seconds.

And while I did miss Mr. Lindberg’s wondrous lustrous orchestral colorings, this Gran Duo was obviously the vision of a very visionary composer.

Harry Rolnick



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