Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Gruber's Frankenstein!!

Went to the SF Symphony this Wednesday evening. The conductor was Edwin Outwater, who I haven't heard before. The program started with Danses Sacrée et Profane by Debussy, which turns out to be a short piece for harp & string orchestra. French music doesn't always make much of an impression on me, which was the case here. Outwater seems to conduct with a very clear beat that is easy to follow.

This was followed by Living Toys by Adès. Before the piece, Outwater addressed the audience & explained that the general theme of the next 3 pieces was childhood. He interpreted the abrupt, startling ending of the Adès piece as the intrusion of thoughts of mortality upon the playfulness of youth.

I thought this was the most interesting piece of the evening. There were only 17 players, & everyone was often challenged to play extremely high pitches. In the manner of a lot of modern music, it's very dense. The middle of the piece features a virtuosic trumpet solo with lots of notes & special effects. Sometimes the players performed short passages of rhythmic hand-clapping. The 1st cellist seemed especially good a this.

After more shuffling of chairs on stage for this long 1st half, we heard Bizet's Petit Suite. This was a short series of light, encore-style pieces. I liked the slow movement featuring a duet between the violin & cello.

After intermission came Gruber's Frankenstein!! It's a series of short, sardonic poems about monsters & superheroes performed by the composer himself, micked & sitting on a stool in front of the orchestra. He doesn't really sing. Instead he does a kind of sprechstimme using different voices & vocal effects. Sometimes he just makes non-verbal, non-musical sounds. He spoke the poems in English, though his accent was so heavy he may just as well have done it in German.

Gruber did some acting as well, though he avoided going into a full-blown dramatic perfomance. When he came to the line "this is the long finger", he made a fist & stuck out his middle finger to demonstrate, & I almost wasn't sure whether or not he knew the meaning of this gesture to an American audience.

The music is a pastiche of modern styles, often atonal & reminiscent of Berg & Weill. The orchestra at times plays toy instruments like kazoos, slide whistles & plastic tubes that make a low humming sound when twirled rapidly overhead. At the beginning of the piece, the timpanist blew up & popped 5 paper bags, crumbling each one & tossing it in a different direction. These antics provided fitting accompaniment to the poems & got laughs from the audience.

The piece was a little over half an hour, & I don't think it could have sustained itself for any longer. After it was over, I felt like I wouldn't really care to hear it again. I think that one of the things the piece does is satirize the way monster stories & super hero stories patronize & infantilze their audience. So at one level the piece itself insults us, its audience.

It was not a well-attended concert. I had a seat in the back in the 1st tier, & after the 1st piece I moved to the front row of the section. The only other people in the row were 2 ladies who didn't come back after intermission.

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