The raison d'être for this New Zealand Symphony Orchestra concert seems to have been the opportunity to bring Austrian composer HK Gruber to New Zealand to give the first performances in this country of his trumpet concerto Aerial and his witty and subversive 'pan-demonium' Frankenstein!!, in which he also took the lead role of chansonnier. Alongside these, the programme brought together an eclectic selection of works making for an amusing, bizarre and occasionally profound evening.

Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Håkan Hardenberger and HK Gruber with the NZSO © NZSO
Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Håkan Hardenberger and HK Gruber with the NZSO
© NZSO

Variously attributed to Joseph or Michael Haydn, Leopold Mozart and a Benedictine monk names Edmund Angerer, the authorship of the Cassation in G Major or "Toy Symphony" remains disputed. Featuring various toy instruments imitating the sounds of cuckoos, nightingales and quails as well as a toy trumpet, toy drum and more. The musicians assigned these instruments took to their unusual tasks with high spirits but the problem was that as a piece, it rather outstays its welcome. While the assorted toy instruments are amusing the first time they're heard, the piece's significant repetition means the novelty and comedic values are lost quickly. Stravinsky's Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant, though still great fun, is more substantial musically. Originally written to accompany fifty ballerinas and fifty tutu-clad elephants in a ballet, this performance was of Stravinsky 1944 orchestral arrangement. Gruber teased a highly evocative reading from the orchestra and they thumped through the displaced rhythms with great enthusiasm.

Concluding the first half of the programme was Gruber's remarkable concerto Aerial, with the solo part performed by Håkan Hardenberger, who premiered the work in 1999. The piece is framed in two very different movements, the first beginning with the orchestra evoking a landscape featuring the Northern Lights. Hardenberger entered with a chordal effect created by playing and singing into the trumpet at the same time, eerie yet ethereal. He also took up cowhorn and piccolo trumpet and utilised several different trumpet mutes over the course of this movement, with the cowhorn establishing a particularly primal mood. Throughout, the trumpet line was often gorgeously ornate with some excursions into quite swooningly melodic Viennese territory. The second movement is supposed to represent an aerial view of an abandoned Earth with a sign proclaiming 'Gone Dancing!' Here, meandering jazzy idioms (often recalling the Bernstein of West Side Story) combined with Eastern European folk elements to produce a briskly moving and exuberant movement, Hardenberger conquering the fiendish technical demands with no difficulty.

Trumpeter turned conductor in the second half, as Hardenberger took over the podium to lead the orchestra in a spirited reading of Haydn's Symphony no. 22, nicknamed "The Philosopher". This nickname (unlikely to have come from the composer) refers most appropriately to the stately first movement and in particular the dialogue between two horns and two cor anglais, recalling a dialogue between two philosophers. The instrumentalists in question shaped these phrases with smooth elegance and sweet, mellow tone. Hardenberger played up the small harmonic changes in the tick-tock accompaniment, showing that Haydn has much more to offer than just geniality. This long first movement is the core of the work, but the following three shorter movements were also well-handled, strings managing the passagework with aplomb in the whirling Presto and horns excitingly brazen in their fourth movement hunting calls.

Gruber returned to the stage, this time as soloist for the full orchestral version of Frankenstein!!, his so-called 'pan-demonium utilising texts from H.C. Artmann's Allerleirausch: Neue Schöne Kinderreime (Noises, Noises, All Around: Lovely New Children’s Rhymes). A series of short nursery rhymes introduce a mix of popular culture figures and monsters out of fairytales at a disorienting pace, with usual nursery rhyme themes distorted to the surprising or grotesque such as Batman and Robin spending time in bed together, vampires dining on children and Robinson Crusoe joining a group of cannibals for a meal. Gruber's performance as the narrator was quite the tour de force, taking a cabaret-style Sprechstimme to extremes, alternately whispering, yelling or bawling out in an inflated operatic style. Diction was also crystal-clear, despite the strong Austrian accent and deliberately exaggerated consonants and aggressively rolled 'r's. Gruber was in his communicative element, with a gleeful flair for the grotesquerie in the text. The accompanying ensemble, ably marshalled by Hardenberger, also pushed away from standard orchestral sound with an array of toy instruments and other unconventional sounds. On cue, members of the orchestra downed their usual instruments and started swinging hose pipes, bursting paper bags and tooting car horns with considerable abandon. It was an altogether riotous and highly enjoyable performance of a wacky work, one long overdue to be heard in this country.

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