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Music Review

HK Gruber Brings Another 'Frankenstein!!' to Life

October 28, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

HK Gruber is an irreverent breaker of rules, and Vienna's musical establishment has long been both wary and intrigued by this odd native son and direct descendant of the composer of "Silent Night." In a film for British TV in 1991, for instance, he marked the bicentennial of Mozart's birth by clamoring for Amadeus' head during a demented tour of Vienna's sewer system.

His most famous work, which Gruber was on hand to sing and conduct with the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group Monday at Japan America Theatre, is just as boisterous. It is a mad monster mash for goofy singer and goofy orchestra.

Nevertheless, Gruber's accomplishment in "Frankenstein!!" and in other works is deadly serious, sophisticated and culturally important.

In the 1950s and '60s, he helped lead a movement, now called the Third Viennese School, which broke out of the lock-step of the fanatic Austro-Germanic modernists. Rather than advocating outright sedition, Gruber infected 12-tone music with popular song. As he said Monday before the concert, he felt Schoenberg was always looking over his shoulder, but not kissing him.

Gruber's visit to Los Angeles, the first for the 55-year-old composer, was overdue. "Frankenstein!!"--which over the last two decades has had hundreds of performances--couldn't fit better into our own city's musical landscape. Here is something that reconciles the tensions between Stravinsky and Schoenberg, the competing 20th century musical giants who were practically Southland neighbors; and here also is something that reconciles the grave high art of both of them with the popular culture of movies, comic strips and also with the rebellious political spirit of the '60s.

Gruber calls "Frankenstein!!" a "pan-demonium." The texts are alienated children's rhymes with hidden political statements by H.C. Artmann. Their wit is retained in the English translation that Gruber sang: Little mousey bites out an eye; Herr Frankenstein gives a toy doll a living heart and lungs; Lois Lane jumps into bed with Superman; little mousey is caught at the end and made into a fine pistol holster.

The music is meant to be equally alienated. Players often exchange instruments for toys and whirling colored plastic tubes. Gruber sings wildly yet precisely in straight and funny voices, but always with exaggeratedly careful if heavily accented pronunciation. He plays a toy saxophone with robust charm.

Yet the performance, and the rest of the all-Gruber program, which opened the Philharmonic's Green Umbrella series of new music, fell somewhat flat. Conducting and singing "Frankenstein!!" simultaneously proved an impressive--but self-defeating--spectacle. Facing the audience and gesturing with his left hand to emphasize the text while beating time for the ensemble with his right, Gruber sacrificed a fuller theatrical commitment to both singing and to the instrumental music, naive and intricate at the same time. A recent recording with Gruber and the excellent conductor, Franz Welser-Most is preferable.

For the first half, Gruber led the American premiere of "Photo-fit Pictures" from 1979 and the West Coast premiere of his Cello Concerto written in 1989. The first is a one-liner, an attempt to find the identity of a 12-bar phrase by Bartok by building a musical portrait the way a police sketch artist draws from clues.

The Cello Concerto is a one-movement peeling away of thick chromaticism to find a near pop song at its core. A bit too dogmatic to be among Gruber's most inspired concertos (the first of his two for violin is a mystical essay in sweet and sour; the one for percussion is a riot), its main attraction is its convoluted solo written for Yo-Yo Ma and nobly performed here by the Philharmonic's associate principal cellist, Daniel Rothmuller. A broken string stopped the performance midway; but Rothmuller turned it to his advantage, actually adding some colorful drama to the proceedings.

Lacking was any of Gruber's recent music (which includes the opera "Gomorra"), but it was a pleasure to hear the "Three MOB Pieces" from the '60s--tunes with soul of the Beatles and the structures of Schoenberg--played before the concert by earnest young musicians from the Orange County High School for the Arts. Still, the evening proved an uncharacteristically tame look at a wild man.

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