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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Concert Review: No Funny Business

The New York Philharmonic premieres H.K. Gruber's Piano Concerto.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Emanuel Ax (left) Alan Gilbert (right) and the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2017 The New York Philharmonic.
It's a new year at the New York Philharmonic, and the orchestra has wasted no time giving the first big premiere of 2017. Thursday night's concert featured the world premiere of a Piano Concerto by Austrian composer H.K. Gruber, with frequent visitor Emanuel Ax at the piano and music director Alan Gilbert back in his familiar place on the podium.

The concert opened with just winds, brass and percussion, playing the Kurt Weill's Little Music from The Threepenny Opera. The songs of this beloved score were stripped of vocals, but retained all of their clarity, sparkle and edge. From the sardonic opening to the familiar, sensual lilt of "Mack the Knife" to the work's climax, this was a 25-minute thrill ride through this funhouse score, making one long to hear another performance of the full work.

H.K. Gruber is  a fearless explorer of the avant-garde and a throwback to the 20th century explorations of Weill and Hanns Eisler. In fact it was with Eisler's songs that he made his initial mark, interpreting the music and words in a gravelly sprechstimme. In 1971, his work Frankenstein! (performed at the Philharmonic's 2011 CONTACT! concert) burst upon the music world like the shot of a toy cannon, combining the poetry of the absurd with toy instruments and an orchestra that shouted, hollered and hummed.

The Piano Concerto was a much more traditional affair, though laced and bound together with Mr. Gruber's sense of humor. It was conceived as a set of variations on two themes, a descending one in the solo piano and a steady, rhythmic pulse on the low strings. Over the course of 25 minutes, Mr. Gruber added more components of the orchestra, from the shimmering wash of the full string section to the roars and moans of woodwinds and brass. A slew of tuned and conventional percussion offered accent and emphasis throughout.

There were no toy instruments here, but the music still retained Mr. Gruber's gift for interjecting sarcasm and wit into melodic ideas that stayed with the listener and tickled the ear as variation built upon variation. The warmth and humor of this work reached all the way back to Haydn and Mozart, and the sheer difficulty of the formidible solo piano passages were squarely in the tradition of the latter composer.

Mr. Ax played the solo part with the precision and bravura that remain his calling cards as an artist. His piano offered sardonic commentary on what the orchestra was playing and orchestra fired back, increasing the intensity of the rhythmic figure and growing more florid and emotional in the course of the argument. The work ended with a final flourish for both keyboard and orchestra, with Mr. Gilbert whirling on the podium and Mr. Ax getting in the last word.

The concert concluded with another Austrian work bursting with youth and energy: the Symphony No. 2 written in 1814 by an 18-year old Franz Schubert. This exuberant piece was played with a full, rich tone that anticipated the darkness of the Schubert masterpieces to follow. Highlights included the whizzing opening movement, the stately Andante and a Menuetto that took a break from the fireworks to engage in a pastoral trio for woodwinds and horns.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.