By John Fleming
MIAMI BEACH — Is the Austrian composer HK (Heinz Karl) Gruber mellowing now that he’s in his 70s? Gruber, who curated and conducted the Dec. 3 New World Symphony program of works by himself and two other contemporary Viennese composers, made his reputation as an iconoclastic musical trickster. His most popular work is the 1977 Frankenstein!!, a neo-Gothic “pan-demonium” featuring a text full of pop culture references (Batman and Robin, Superman, James Bond, and, yes, Frankenstein) and madcap instrumentation that includes kazoos, whirly tubes, slide whistle, paper bags blown up and popped, and a plastic sax. Ten years ago, Gruber led the work and performed its narration with New World.
So, given Gruber’s track record, it came as something of a surprise to hear his 2010 piece for percussion and orchestra, into the open…, with the brilliant soloist Colin Currie in the U.S. premiere by NWS. Instead of being a daunting showpiece of percussion virtuosity — though there was certainly plenty of that from Currie — and eccentric whimsy in the composer’s customary fashion, it was a mostly somber, sentimental expression of loss and remembrance, dedicated to David Drew, a musicologist and former music critic in London who was Gruber’s longtime publisher at Boosey & Hawkes. Drew died in 2009 when the composer was writing the score.
The Saturday night concert included another U.S. premiere, Mad Dog, a 2011 work by Bernd Richard Deutsch, and Kurt Schwertsik’s 2009 Nachtmusiken, which also includes a tribute to Drew, who was Schwertsik’s publisher at Boosey. Gruber and Schwertsik have been friends since the 1960s, when as part of the self-styled, jokingly named Third Viennese School they set out to restore tonality to a classical music world then besotted with the severe avant-garde serialism of Boulez and Stockhausen and the Darmstadt school.
For into the open…, Currie deployed a battery of percussion spread across the front of the stage, and he was backed by an enormous orchestra. In a program note, Gruber described it as not so much a concerto as “a symphonic piece without a display of wild drumming, concentrating instead on percussion with distinct pitches, either tuned or reinforced by orchestral instruments.” It began with Currie striking soft, precise notes on marimba, Chinese cymbals, temple blocks, cowbells, and other percussion. These sounds were echoed in the orchestra, a pattern that recurred with increasing complexity throughout the 27-minute, single-movement work, which alternated between moments of layered subtlety and violent, cacophonous climaxes punched out by the large brass section.
Currie, dressed all in black, gave a riveting, athletic performance, moving among the vast array of percussion with the intense alertness of a prize fighter, sometimes dashing across the stage from one setup to another, arriving just in time to hit the right note. The soloist’s arsenal ranged from six timpani to marimba and vibraphone to tuned gongs and drums, and he used at least 15 pairs of mallets. In one section Currie played a languid bolero on congas and a Peruvian cajon, a boxy instrument that he sat on and slapped with his hands while stamping his feet.
Like many percussion concertos, into the open… sometimes felt more like an exercise designed to put to use as many instruments as possible than a unified whole, but the dedication to Drew was telling and served to pull things together. The publisher was an important Kurt Weill scholar, and sprinkled throughout Gruber’s score was the suggestion of a Weill melody like “Alabama Song.” The finale was punctuated by aching silences amid the aftereffect of fading sound with which the composer has said he sought to capture the sense of Drew’s “spirit going out into open space.”
Gruber, making his third appearance with New World, drew superb performances from the youthful musicians of the elite orchestral academy, now in its 29th season. Especially strong was the playing in the challenging music of Deutsch, who is a generation or two younger than Gruber and Schwertsik — he turns 40 next year — and a leading light in European new music. The three composers from Vienna share a sense of humor, and Mad Dog was inspired by his dog, said Deutsch, who was in Miami Beach to work with the musicians on his 20-minute piece for a chamber orchestra of 17 players. It featured a string quartet, brass and woodwind ensembles, piano and harp and double bass, plus a pair of percussionists.
Mad Dog has three movements that cover the everyday life of a dog. It starts with noon (the dog “pushes, pulls, runs, jumps, sniffs, pants, barks, howls, yaps, drinks,” according to Deutsch’s program note), then moves through the night (“the time of dreams/nightmares”) and concludes the next morning with a movement titled “Irate.” Thus, I suppose, the “mad” dog, though it was pretty hard to picture a canine connection in this propulsive, jazzy score, which had the relentless rhythm and weight of a runaway train. Perhaps the stray harp glissando represented dog dreams, and a few growls did seem to come from the brass. Violinist Maya Cohon contributed rapid, deft little solos, and John Wilson’s prepared piano had a wonderfully woozy, demented quality.
In a video interview that played before Nachtmusiken, Schwertsik said that “to enjoy my music you have to know other music,” and indeed, his 23-minute work evokes any number of other composers, notably Mahler and his Seventh Symphony with its two night-music movements. There are allusions to Brahms and Bruckner, Janáček, and Shostakovich. The five-movement work also brought to mind another Austrian master, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who emigrated to Hollywood to compose for the movies, and Schwertsik’s symphonic score was well-crafted and lushly cinematic. Highlights included a haunting waltz for accordion (Benjamin Ickies) and viola (Jarrett Threadgill); the Drew movement, a melancholy cello quartet; and a fugue that ends the work.
Fittingly, Gruber’s modernist program was performed during Art Basel Miami Beach, America’s largest contemporary art fair, a five-day bash held at the convention center just a block or so down traffic-clogged Washington Avenue from the New World Center. There is not a lot of crossover between Art Basel’s visual arts lovers and scene makers and NWS, though the fair did use the academy’s 7,000-square-foot exterior projection wall to show films. Before the concert, the surrounding SoundScape Park, with its elaborate outdoor sound system, reverberated with clangorous surround-sound installations for an audience lounging on big puffy pillows scattered around the lawn.
John Fleming writes for Musical America, Opera News and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic of the Tampa Bay Times.