A big dose of schmäh, plus Britten and Brahms

HK Gruber

St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art, Aug. 11

About 200 Santa Feans received a big dose of schmäh at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s production of Frankenstein!! A Pan-demonium for Baritone Chansonnier and Ensemble, and most had no idea they were exposed to it. No need to reach for the Geiger counters, though. Schmäh is Vienna’s legendary off-kilter sense of humor, and it delighted the audience here, thanks to Austrian HK Gruber and his concert-drama.

Gruber is a Vienna Boys Choir member turned professional double bassist turned composer-performer who rejected the austere avant-garde of 1960s and 1970s classical music in favor of more accessible styles and subject matter. In keeping with the black-humor attributes of schmäh, much of Gruber’s work makes use of ironic comedy and incongruous juxtapositions.

The text for Frankenstein!! comes from a set of poems by the Austrian H.C. Artmann called Noises, Noises, All Around: Lovely New Children’s Rhymes (1967). Macabre and witty in equal measure, they make what the poet called “covert political statements” through characters taken from Gothic horror stories and popular culture — Dracula, Frankenstein, John Wayne, Batman, Goldfinger, and the latter’s nemesis “Jimmy” Bond, among others.

In his program note, Gruber writes, “The monsters of political life have always tried to hide their true faces, and all too often succeed in doing so ... Frankenstein — or whoever we choose to identify with that name — is not the protagonist but the figure behind the scenes whom we forget at our peril.”

As performed in English, the 30-minute piece feels like nothing so much as Rocky and Bullwinkle’s “Fractured Fairy Tales” refracted through the musical and textual lens of Sweeney Todd. The poet established this tone early in the poem’s prologue: “Wait, wait a little while,/Artmann will be coming, child./With his little razor blade,/he’ll chop you into pink kool-aid.”

Later on, a child happily thanks Frankenstein for doctoring her doll back to health: “His old stuffed heart has been exchanged/for a heart of living flesh./How pleased I am, how pleased I am/his little lungs make noises.” Frankenstein replies, “Why shouldn’t they be noisy dear?/Those lungs are from a criminal/and the brilliant brain as well,/that’s throbbing in his skull now.”

The 78-year-old Gruber played all the characters himself, with energy, charm, and sly humor, using the widest range of vocal styles imaginable, from more-or-less standard singing to falsetto to crooning to glottal growling to virtuosic whistling. Frankenstein!! exists in two versions; one for full orchestra and one for a chamber group of 12 players. The latter was performed here, conducted with verve by Santa Fe Symphony Principal Conductor Guillermo Figueroa.

In keeping with the children’s point of view, Gruber and the instrumentalists played a variety of toy instruments throughout the piece, such as tin whistles, slide whistles, toy saxophones, and melodicas. Five sound tubes were whirled overhead at one point, paper bags were blown up and popped, and the players all sang as part of the finale.

Their purpose isn’t just to add visual and aural humor, although they certainly do. As Gruber explained, “Artmann’s demystification of heroic villains or villainous heroes finds a musical parallel in the persistent alienation of conventional orchestral sound by the use of a cupboardful of toy instruments ... Their primary role is musical rather than playful — even howling plastic horses have their motivic and harmonic function.”

Audience laughter isn’t often heard at chamber music festival performances (and that’s usually a good thing), but here it was in waves, in response to a music-theater piece that was entertaining, thought-provoking, and very much unlike anything else seen and heard in Santa Fe. Gruber composes operas, as well as concert music, so one hopes the stars will align for a production here or nearby of his Gloria — A Pig Tale or his setting of Ödön von Horváth’s superb play, Tales from the Vienna Woods.

Frankenstein!! was preceded by Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings, the composer’s second published work, written in 1932 when he was 18. It premiered on a BBC radio broadcast in 1933 and a year later was performed in Florence at a prestigious contemporary music convention, becoming Britten’s first international success.

It’s an impressively mature piece with a lot of harmonic bite, and most of it succeeds in dodging the pastoral strain that was so prominent in British composition at the time. The oboe part was played with a strong sense of personality and song-like phrasing by Liang Wang, principal oboe of the New York Philharmonic. He was ably partnered by Figueroa (an excellent violinist, as well as conductor), violist Theresa Rudolph, and cellist Joseph Johnson.

The concert closed with Johannes Brahms’ String Sextet No. 2 in G Major. He started writing it in 1864, and it premiered two years later, although the piece makes use of material he had sketched out as much as a decade earlier.

Interestingly, Brahms wrote two excellent string sextets before mastering the string quartet. He was one of the harshest self-critics in classical music history and may well have been intimidated by the specters of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, who earlier perfected the quartet form. He also gravitated towards compositional complexity and lower sonorities, both of which were facilitated by the sextet’s 24 strings and deeper sonorities of two violas and two cellos.

His first string sextet, from six years earlier, is a youthful-sounding and high-spirited work. In the second, he was motivated by the memories of a short-lived but intense love relationship with Agathe von Siebold, dating from 1858. She was a 23-year-old soprano and composition student, and the pair went so far as to exchange and wear engagement rings. Brahms broke things off a few months later, after his first piano concerto failed in its earliest performances.

As a result, the second sextet is shot through with the darker, autumnal quality that characterizes much of his work. Brahms even wove his ex-fiancée’s first name into the first movement’s melodic material, aided by the fact that in German musical notation the note we call B is expressed as H. Substituted D for the nearly identical sounding T to spell out A-G-A-D-H-E.

The sextet received a generally satisfying performance here, although it took some time for a true ensemble sensibility to emerge. The violinists were Jennifer Gilbert and Leila Josefowicz; the former is concertmaster of the orchestra National de Lyon and the latter a well-known soloist. Josefowicz is a more extroverted player with an incisive tone, so it made sense to have her take the second violin part, with Gilbert’s sweeter, rounder sound on first violin.

Violists Paul Neubauer and L.P. How achieved the greatest unanimity of approach and tonal blend; first cellist Eric Kim was impressive in his many highlighted passages. Second cellist Timothy Eddy seemed somewhat reticent by comparison, although, to be fair, his part often consisted of the bass notes that anchor the musical activity above.

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