Pan-demonium time in Santa Fe

Conductor HK Gruber; photo Jon Super

The word "unique" is often used where unusual would be the more honest choice, but in the case of HK Gruber, it’s entirely accurate. A one-of-a-kind talent, the 78-year-old Viennese composer-conductor-vocal artist is featured on two upcoming Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival concerts. It’s a can’t-miss opportunity for fans of the decadent spirit of Weimar Germany and its more recent incarnation in Gruber’s music.

At 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 11, he performs in his own Frankenstein!! A Pan-demonium for Baritone Chansonnier and Ensemble. (Chansonnier usually means songwriter, but a better translation here would be “purveyor of songs.”) The text comes from some innocuous-seeming children’s rhyme by H.C. Artmann. The characters who appear in it include Frankenstein, Miss Dracula, Superman, Batman, and Robin — but a more sinister reality lurks behind them.

Artmann described his poems as “covert political statements,” and in his program notes, Gruber defined their underlying theme as, “The monsters of political life have always tried to hide their true faces, and all too often succeed in doing so. ... Frankenstein is not the protagonist, but the figure behind the scenes whom we forget at our peril. Hence the exclamation points.” In addition to singing, Gruber plays a raft of toy instruments during the half-hour piece, also with subversive intent, paralleling Artmann’s demystification of villainous heroes with toy instrument sounds that undercut the traditional chamber orchestra palette.

At noon on Thursday, Aug. 12, Gruber returns to perform songs by Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, almost all to texts by Bertolt Brecht. Other than eight Hollywood film scores, Eisler’s music isn’t very familiar in this country, although he was one of the 20th century’s most important songwriters. “Not one of the many Brecht plays for which Eisler wrote the music can be imagined without it," Gruber says. "The common denominator between Weill and Eisler is their songs, simple and complex at the same time, and always punchy.”

The Aug. 11 program also includes Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet and Johannes Brahms’ String Sextet in G Major. The world premiere of Sean Shepherd’s Old Instruments is on the Aug. 12 concert. Both events take place at St. Francis Auditorium in the New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 W. Palace Ave. Tickets for Aug. 11 are $28-$98 and for Aug. 12, are $35-$45. 505-982-1890,  

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