Gruber’s Piano Concerto Chatters Away At NY Phil

Music director Alan Gilbert led the New York Philharmonic in the premiere of HK Gruber’s Piano Concerto.
(Photo by Chris Lee/New York Philharmonic)
By Vivien Schweitzer

NEW YORK — In an introductory video about HK Gruber’s Piano Concerto, which received its premiere by the New York Philharmonic Jan. 5-7, pianist Emanuel Ax describes the piece as “full of notes,” “full of very complex and jazzy rhythms,” and out of his comfort zone. But it was certainly difficult to detect any unease with the off-kilter rhythms and virtuoso flourishes during Ax’s confident, colorful performance Jan. 6 at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall.

Emanuel Ax: confident, colorful soloist. (Lisa Marie Mazzucco)

Alan Gilbert, who concludes his stint as music director of the Philharmonic this season, has championed an admirable range of contemporary music at subscription concerts, the NY Phil Biennial, and the “Contact!” chamber-music series. Gruber’s concerto, however, didn’t prove to be one of the highlights. As Ax stated, the concerto is certainly “full of notes,” but they often didn’t add up to much.

Gruber, an Austrian composer who composes and plays jazz, first gained recognition with Frankenstein!!, a 1978 work subtitled “a pan-demonium for baritone chansonnier and orchestra” that references pop, folk song, and cabaret and is set to ghoulish children’s verse. He has written several concertos, including the haunting Aerial for the trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger, which alludes to Fred Astaire. As a starting point for the Piano Concerto, Gruber used music from the brothel-cabaret scene from his opera, Tales from the Vienna Woods.

The cacophonous one-movement concerto opened with solitary chords played by the left hand. The sparse canvas was quickly filled in with brass interjections and scampering filigree in the right hand. There were certainly ear-catching moments as the variations unfolded in multiple keys and rhythms, intricacies the orchestra nailed under Gilbert’s adept direction. But it sometimes felt like listening to a multitude of opinionated voices competing for attention without one ever rising above the fray long enough to make a point. The work sounded merely busy, on occasion frantically so.

Gruber’s concerto is drawn from cabaret music. (Jon Super)

The MOBart & tonART Ensemble, which Gruber co-founded in 1967 as an antidote to the avant-garde music advocated by the Darmstadt School, often performed not only his music but also that of his friends and earlier composers like Kurt Weill. So Weill’s Little Threepenny Music seemed an apt choice to open this Philharmonic program. The suite for winds, brass, percussion, guitar, and piano is derived from his “play with music,” The Threepenny Opera, and features arrangements of well-known numbers, including “Mack the Knife.” Gilbert conducted a lithe, polished rendition that conveyed the wry but sultry cabaret mood.

The concert concluded with a vivid performance of Schubert’s infrequently heard Symphony No. 2, which the Philharmonic last presented in 1994. Gilbert elicited gracious, polished playing and found an ideal balance as he highlighted both charming and tumultuous elements. After a dignified, spacious reading of the opening Largo, the dialogue between violins and lower strings sparkled in the ensuing Allegro-vivace. The concluding Presto vivace unfolded with fiery vigor.

While Gruber’s Piano Concerto disappointed, the concert again highlighted Gilbert’s gifts as a conductor and his knack for creating intelligent, thoughtful programs.

Vivien Schweitzer contributes to publications including The Economist and is writing a guide to opera for Basic Books.