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The Circus and the Funeral

New York
Great Hall, Cooper Union
10/01/2017 -  & October 3, 2017 (Bard College)
Jean Sibelius: Valse triste from Kuolema, Opus 44, No. 1
HK Gruber: Frankenstein!!
Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 104 (“London”)

Nathaniel Sullivan (Baritone)
The Orchestra Now (TON), James Bagwell (Conductor)

M. Sullivan, J. Bagwell (© Samuel T. Dog)

“monster races down the stairs
grubby hands, disheveled hair
so that's why he never lingers
there's blood on his dainty fingers
look! there's a fine old urinal
with water rushing just like niagara falls
in he skips and all is flushed away
hands as fresh as new-mown hay.

From HC Artmann’s Monster, in HK Gruber’s Frankenstein!!

The first time I heard HP Gruber’s/jovial/murderous/vicious/infantile/grisly/giggly Frankenstein!! (A pan-demonium for chansonnier and orchestra after children’s rhymes by HC Artmann), it was the result a singular error. Never to be repeated again. And that mistake made it a thousand times more magnetic than had it been performed properly.

An explanation. The composer Heinz Karl Gruber, a serious jazz-writing break-all-barriers Austrian writer, was scheduled to fly into New York to narrate his own Frankenstein!! with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. He had performed it so many times and was–apparently–so precious and so amusing that I had a prejudice of wariness.

The gods do move in mysterious ways, though in this case they didn’t move at all. Mr. Gruber’s flight was delayed. The music wasn’t. Mr. Gruber’s shoes were filled, at the last minute, by a most unlikely substitute. David Robertson, the conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, stepped into Frankenstein!! as stick-beater, kazoo-blower, polyvocal actor-chansonnier of the piece–as well as conductor and Music Director of the orchestra itself.

His musicianship aside, Mr. Robertson is personally the most genial figure on the podium today. And in this case his geniality was used for such an explosive and literally spontaneous vision of Mr. Gruber’s macabre masterpiece that it quickly dwarfed any other performances I could imagine.

This is certainly not to begrudge the very professional performance of baritone Nathaniel Sullivan and The Orchestra Now yesterday afternoon in Cooper Union. Mr. Sullivan is a marvelous actor, his chanting/singing/falsetto was to the point. He showed humor (a well-rehearsed humor), gave allegiance to both music and words. And gave, to the half-filled Great Hall of Cooper Union as ebullient a performance as could be expected.

Truth be told, though, it did not give off sparks. And this may not have been Mr. Sullivan’s fault at all. Neither he not the highly experienced conductor James Bagwell made an error. Nor did Leon Botstein’s youthful players in The TON Orchestra, make a mistake. Toy trumpets bugled, paper bags popped, faux-chorales were interpolated and those whizz-whistling bull-roarers whizzed and whistled on time.

Yet two phenomena forestalled enjoyment. First was the venue. The hallowed Great Hall of Cooper Union–that sanctified sanctuary from whence spoke Abe Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Mark Twain and a thousand others over the past two centuries–might have seemed too holy, too austere for this kind of music.

Perhaps tomorrow evening in Bard College, the Daniel Arts Center theater will be more appropriate.

Second was an unforgivable error. Preceding Frankenstein!! was Jean Sibelius’ early Valse triste, whose sobriety, and antiquated Victoriana would put any audience into a less-than ebullient mood. The TON Orchestra performed it with fitting seriousness (though lacking the scintilla of mystery), but at its best, Valse triste is a minor inspiration, a diversion from theater music, which somehow caught on.

And which precludes much enjoyment of other music. The result was an audience unprepared for the Cirque de Gruesome Soleil to follow.

If emotionally Frankenstein!! could not overcome the Finn’s piece, one cannot disparage Mr. Gruber’s creation on the surface. The closest previous creation of this kind (perhaps the only precursor) was William Walton’s Façade, which also employed nonsense verses and mechanized, clever, surprising music. Though, Walton never tried to “justify” Edith Sitwell’s verses, while Gruber has always spoke of hidden meanings in these poems.

But musically, who gives a damn? It is fun music, it gallops along switfly, conductor Bagwell joined in the fun, and Mr. Sullivan obviously gave it all the necessary invention and seeming delight in his own role.

TON in the Great Hall (© Samuel T. Dog)

The final work was more than fitting, and even had a historical tie. Both Joseph Haydn and HK Gruber had been members of the Vienna Boys Choir in their youth, and both composer always understood both humor and joy and majesty.

Frankenstein!! was written in Gruber’s youth. Haydn’s “London” Symphony was his final work in this form, though nothing valedictory can be found in its pages. The TON Orchestra is hardly equipped to bring memorable eloquence to these marvelous pages. But Mr. Bagwell gave it a fine professional reading. The opening Adagio verged on the truly tragic (unlike Sibelius’ faux-profundity), and the main section was eloquent enough. The second movement flowed, and the final two sections danced along. The finale was not quite whirlwind, but its Spiritoso tempo was conduced in that eternal nether-world between breathless enthusiasm and joy.

Harry Rolnick



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