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HK Gruber has a cold.  The nasal voice dripping into my telephone earpiece from his home in Vienna sounds more like an early-round contestant on Frog Idol than the celebrated Austrian composer and frequent chansonnier of Frankenstein!!, one of the most unusual and beloved pieces of contemporary music you’re likely to encounter.  In the chansonnier role, the performer is required to  sing  in cabaret, lieder and exaggerated operatic styles as well as speak, whisper and shriek at the top of his lungs.  All of which, Gruber does extremely well if you’ve heard a recording or seen him perform.

Will his congested state affect his upcoming performances of Frankenstein!! with the New York Philharmonic at the Metropolian Museum on December 16 and Symphony Space on December 17, I wondered?  “Not at all,” he says. “It might make them more even more interesting. This is not the kind of role that demands much serious singing.”

Even via transatlantic cable you can tell that HK Gruber is a man who enjoys his work and clearly doesn’t take himself all that seriously.  As a composer, he’s been pulling the beards of Schoenberg and the other Gods of the Second Viennese School for well over 40 years now.  Born in Vienna in 1943, Gruber was a member of the Vienna Boys’ Choir and at the Vienna Hochschule für Musik studied composition with Erwin Ratz and Gottfried von Einem, theory with Hanns Jelinek and double bass with Ludwig Streicher. From 1961 he played double bass with the ensemble ‘die reihe’ and from 1969 with the ORF-Symphony Orchestra. Since 1997 he has devoted himself to composing, conducting and performance as chansonnier.

Gruber’s heroes were not the atonal gang of the Second Viennese School but  composers like Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler whose music mined popular musical forms like caberet to create theater pieces often set to Bertolt Brecht’s subverisve lyrics.  Not that Gruber dislikes gnarlier works by more formal composers.  His music theatre repertoire also includes Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, and works by Kagel.

The origin of the Frankenstein!!, a pan-demonium for chansonnier and orchestra after children’s rhymes by H.C. Artmann dates back  to the Frankenstein Suite of 1971 — a sequence of songs and dances written for the Vienna ‘MOB art and tone ART Ensemble’, a group of young art and music radicals that included fellow composers Kurt Schwertsik and Otto Zykan which was then active in the field of instrumental theatre. “We had this radical idea that harmony could be pretty nice. Everything didn’t have to be atonal.  Of course, they referred to us as those ‘Viennese Clowns.'”  He sounds positively pleased.

Gruber was unhappy with the improvisatory structure of the original and felt it required a full orchestra so in 1976/77 he completely recomposed the work in its present form and convinced a promising young conductor named Simon Rattle to take it on.  It was first performed on November 25, 1978 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, with Gruber himself as soloist. For the 1979 Berlin Festival he wrote an alternative version for soloist and 12 players. Since then, the two versions have been performed literally hundreds of times and Gruber has recorded them both–as chansonnier with the Camerata Academica Salzburg, led by Franz Welser-Möst for EMI, and as both singer and conductor with the BBC Philharmonic for Chandos

“The title of the volume from which I took the poems of Frankenstein!! – Allerleirausch, neue schöne kinderreime (Noises, noises, all around – lovely new children’s rhymes) – sounds naive and innocently cheerful; but H.C. Artmann described the poems as being, among other things, ‘covert political statements.’ He refused to explain what he meant but we all know from history that  the monsters of political life have always tried to hide their true faces, and all too often succeed in doing so”

Gruber believes one of the reasons for Frankenstein’s endurance is that it works one one level for kids and on another for adults.  And who of any age could resist an orchestral work that requires nearly all the orchestra players to double on toys of various kinds. Including a plastic hose; a “bird warbler” (a short plastic or metal pipe on a string, swung like a lasso); and an automobile horn (vintage 1910, the score suggests); a toy car horn; toy clarinets, saxophones, trumpets and piano paper bags  and a set of variously pitched swanee whistles, made of tubing with a recorder mouthpiece and a plunger that allows the player to produce glissandos.

Despite Frankenstein!!’s extraordinary popularity, Gruber is far from a one-hit wonder.  He is particularly noted for his concertos, including Aerial for trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger, which has received over 40 performances since its premiere in 1999, two for violinist Ernst Kovacic, the Cello Concerto written for Yo-Yo Ma and premiered at Tanglewood in 1989, the percussion concerto Rough Music in the repertoire of Evelyn Glennie, and Busking for trumpet, accordion, banjo and string orchestra, premiered by Hardenberger in 2008. His dramatic works include the apocalyptic opera Gomorra staged at the Vienna Volksoper in 1993, Gloria, a musical version of Rudolf Herfurtner’s classic pigtale, staged at the 1994 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Munich Volkstheater, Wien Modern festival, Munster Theater and the Aspen Music Festival, and Der Herr Nordwind to a libretto by HC Artmann, premiered at Zürich Opera in 2005.

He is currently at work on an opera based on Ödön von Horváth’s play Tales From the Viennese Woods which as a subject is as far afield as one can get from the gay Strauss waltz from which it takes its name.  A woman named Marianne seeks to escape the brutality of  petit bourgeois life on “a quiet street in Vienna’s Eighth District” but is stifled by a conspiracy of her miserable neighbors.  Gruber likens her to a female Wozzeck.

But, for now, there is the durable Frankenstein!! with the New York Philharmonic at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of December 16 and the following night  at Symphony Space.  Also on the program are Fibers, Yarn and Wire by Alexandre Lunsqui and Gran Duo by Magnus Lindberg.  Details are here.

I have three sets of tickets for the December 17 performance at Symphony Space.  Here’s your tossup.  Name a famous American composer who has sung the role of chansonnier in Frankenstein!!   Or, name a famous American conductor who has sung the role.  I’ll pick the winners out of hat if several people get it right.

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She was 21. I was 22. We were in love. Nothing was impossible.

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David Lang is one of my favorite composers and among a handful of brave souls who created the vibrant new music scene we enjoy today. He and his Bang on a Can co-founders Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon were writing, producing and getting their music played and recorded long before the coming of the internet, inexpensive recording technology, and a hip club scene made DIY SOP. He reminds me a bit of the hero in the old country song “I Knew Jesus Before He Was a Superstar.”

His latest recording on Cantaloupe, this was written by hand, was officially released yesterday.  The album is made up of two compositions, the title work this was written by hand and memory pieces, both performed by the gifted pianist Andrew Zolinsky, who gave the first performances of both them some years ago. Perhaps because they are played so beautifully on a solo piano, both works have a directness and approachability that make them among the most user-friendly and enchanting that Lang has ever written, IMHO.  What you have here, folks, is a mature composer in total command of his craft and his musical soul.

Ah, but you want to know about those extra hands, right?   One of the works on the album, wed, is  the subject of an online contest that some really talented but perhaps underappreciated pianst will win.  The sheet music for wed is available for free here and you are are invited to download it. Pianists can then post videos of themselves playing the work onto YouTube with the tag “david lang piano competition 2011″. After January 1, all of the submissions will be judged by an all-star pianist panel consisting of Vicky Chow, Jeremy Denk, Lisa Moore, Andrew Zolinsky, and the composer himself. The winner will be flown to New York, and Lang will compose a new work for four hands to be played by him/her and Zolinsky at (le) poisson rouge on May 6. The winner will also play his or her rendition of “wed” at (le) poisson rouge. The full rules can be found here.

Good luck.  I’m pulling for you.

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I’ve never been a Twitter fan.  Very few people have ever said anything worthwhile in 144 characters and I’m not one of them.  The chances are good that you aren’t either.  But, I LOVE Google+  Easy to share music and all kinds of neat stuff, have real conversations that you can actually follow, and an incredible filtering system for us passive aggressives.  For example, I “circle” everyone who circles me but the people I don’t really want to follow (relatives, people who might vote for Herman Cain, people who were home-schooled or sell real estate) I put in a circle labeled “People I Don’t Really Want to Talk To.”  And, I never look at that stream.  On the other hand, I have a circle for Composers and Musicians that has more then 900 names in it and I follow it several times a day.  (About 400 of them are guitar players which doesn’t really count…just kidding).  I’d be happy to share them with you if you like.  In fact, here are 500 now:  Jerry’s G+ Musicians Circle.

But, I digress.  If you’d really like to hablo avec and share ideas with me, Steve or Christian, you’ll find us at:

+Jerry Bowles

+Steve Layton

+Christian Carey

Christian and I are a lot more active on G+ than Steve so far but we’re working on him.

If you’re a G+er, leave your link in the comments and I’ll add you to the Sequenza21 circle I’m putting together.

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The nice folks at Exploring the Metropolis are trying  to find out where most of the city’s musicians are located within the 5 boroughs of New York City so  they can better serve them through their residency program.  To that end they have put together a super-short  (4 questions) anonymous survey for the Sequenza21 community.  These folks do a great job in finding resources for composers and musicians.  Hop over to Survey Monkey and GPS your bad self.

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Well, slightly.  Steve Smith’s terrific review of the ACME/MNMP/Sequenza21 concert at Joe’s Pub Tuesday night is now up online.  And, if you’re arriving via the Times link, welcome.  Come back regularly.  We’ll find something to amuse you.

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Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to the concert last night.  If you were there, leave a note and tell me how it went.

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Sure, you’ve seen the mesmerizing Godfrey Reggio film KOYAANISQATSI: Life Out of Balance with its breathtaking music by Philip Glass. Maybe, several times. But, you’ve never seen it projected on a huge screen above the Avery Fisher Hall stage while the New York Philharmonic plays the haunting Glass score live.

Now you can. On November 2-3, the NYPhil, Philip Glass, and the Philip Glass Ensemble and the Collegiate Chorale will be doing just that in an extraordinary once–okay, twice–in a lifetime event. The show starts both nights at 7:30.

Equal parts documentary, tone poem and visual concert, this revolutionary 1982 film portrays the relationship between humans, nature and technology. Here’s a preview of coming attractions:

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Not really, but it got your attention, didn’t it? You can, however,  worship at the feet of one of the world’s best fiddle players and nicest people from fairly close afar Monday night (that’s probably tonight when you read this) for a mere $20 donation to one of NY’s favorite performance spaces, The Stone, located somewhat inconveniently at the corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street. Ms. Hahn will be playing the Charles Ives Violin Sonatas 1 and 4 (with Cory Smythe on piano…sorry Valentina stalkers) as a special benefit for The Stone, whose artistic director is the estimable John Zorn. Performances at 8 and 10pm, followed by a discussion with Hilary and Jan Swafford (Charles Ives biographer, composer) and Zorn. Not sure if the $20 is for both shows or not but if they try to throw you out tell them you were misinformed by Amanda Ameer. It’s a small joint and seating is limited so get there early. BTW, Hilary’s new Ives sonatas CD (all 4 sonatas) comes out on Tuesday and is available for pre-order on ye olde Amazon now.

While I have your attention, let me to direct it to the World Premiere of Judith Shatin’s Respecting the First, performed by the Cassatt Quartet on Thursday night, October 13, at Symphony Space’s Thalia Theatre. The piece was commissioned for the Cassatt with the support of the Fromm Foundation. It is scored for amplified string quartet and electronics fashioned from readings of and about the First Amendment and is dedicated to Congresswoman Gabrielle Griffiths.  Pretty relevant topic these days.  The Cassatt will also be playing pieces by Sebastian Currier and Mari Kimura.

Anybody besides me seen Melancholia?  What did you think?

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Among the many interesting composers, groups and musicians who “syndicate” (a fancy way of saying “republish”) their blogs through Chamber Musician Today is the estimable eighth blackbird who are currently on tour in Australia.  Through the miracle of RSS, their latest post poured in earlier this evening and it contained some thoughts that seemed worth sharing with the keen minds who frequent this URL.   Written by cellist Nicholas Photinos, the post is titled Should Hard Music Sound Hard?  It was occasioned by Nicholas on a night off having heard Alban Gerhardt playing the tricky Shostakovich first cello concerto with the Tasmanian Symphony in Melbourne.  He writes:

Old Shosti has plenty of ground to cover and places to show off, culminating in a ginormous cadenza spanning the second to third movement, which he nailed. To the wall.

And yet…standing ovation? No. A healthy applause, certainly, but no O, and barely even a hoot. Why? After it was done, I turned to Tim, who said tellingly: “I dunno, maybe the piece was too easy for him?”

It sure sounded that way—he seemed impatient, always a hair ahead of the orchestra, executing difficult passagework with barely a modicum of effort, always looking towards the next hurdle to jump. Some of the fast bits in the cadenza were faster than I’d ever heard them, and he barely seemed to be breaking a sweat. I noticed myself tuning out a little, and then asking myself why. Did it all sound too easy? Or is it that hard music sound hard?

Ok, so now here’s the money graph that requires some response:

Musically, we’re already living in a world of wonders, in that I can’t imagine any other time in history where so many people have had such a mastery of any instrument you can think of. Or, if you allow me to have a cello geek-out moment, we’re living in a time where Pablo Casals, still considered the best cellist who ever lived ever by many, would have struggled to get into an undergraduate conservatory (sorry Master P–you’re musical but too out of tune) and Prokofiev Symphony Concertante is the new Dvorak (ie 10ths are the new octaves). Even the Shostakovich concerto used to seem hard, but is now routinely learned by high school kids, and younger.

I think Nicholas has nailed it. What do you folks think?

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