Gruber’s “Symphonic Cabaret” offers intriguing NWS program with belated Weill premiere

By Lawrence Budmen

HK Gruber conducted the New World Symphony Saturday night in Miami Beach.

When Austrian composer-conductor HK Gruber leads the New World Symphony’s Sounds of the Times series, one can count on quirky programming and well-rehearsed, top drawer performances. 

Gruber’s “Symphonic Cabaret” program Saturday night at the New World Center offered worthy repertoire for three quarters of the evening. Ironically, the one disappointing offering was by Gruber himself.

The U.S. premiere of Kleine Zaubernachtmusik (A Little Magic Night Music) by Kurt Weill, which opened the concert, was an utter delight. Originally conceived as the score for a children’s pantomime in 1922 and considered lost, the instrumental parts were discovered in a safe at Yale University in 2005. Musicologist John Baxindine arranged the eight-movement, 22-minute instrumental suite. The fable paints a scenario in which toys come to life at midnight but return to stillness at dawn as children awake. The score is miles removed from Weill’s early neo-classical works and his Weimar-era theatrical collaborations with Berthold Brecht.

 From the atmospheric flute solo as the bells toll in the opening “Midnight” section to the final signaling of “Dawn,” the music is both sophisticated and charming. “The Little Horse” is a Mahleresque scherzo while “Waltz” manages to blend Johann Strauss with touches of atonality. “The Soldier” marches to a theme that could have been written by Prokofiev in his Love for Three Oranges mode. “Gavotte” illustrates Weill’s ability, even early in his career, to write a catchy tune. The percussion players are given a lively workout in the circus music of “The Roly-Poly.”

Weill’s inventive and surprising creation was given a lucid performance that mixed instrumental brilliance and subtlety in equal measure. Gruber, whose own compositions often fuse modernist and populist influences similar to Weill, conducted with energy and theatrical pizzazz. Leah Stevens contributed mellow flute solos in the opening and closing sections. 

Ordinarily a film presented in tandem with musical performances can be distracting but Weill’s unpretentious confection was ideally suited to a visual accompaniment. The animated projections by Clyde Scott and Michael Matamoros, based on illustrations by Kristina Rodriguez, were colorful and beautifully synchronized to the score. Massive wooden soldiers marching and ballerinas on pointe were just some of the entertaining images that enhanced the music.

Jonathan Bailey Holland’s Halcyon Sun was written in 2003 to celebrate the opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. Scored for large orchestra, the work’s three movements trace the path of the sun at various times of day. Repetitive harp chords introduce a sunburst of gleaming timbres, the full ensemble resounding in lustrous textures. The second movement is a joyous pandemonium with percussion leading the way. A lush string melody commences the final section as brass volleys herald the sun’s final blaze before the initial harp chords herald dusk. A skilled orchestrator, Holland has created an effective contemporary showpiece. Gruber drew brilliant execution from all the instrumental choirs and repeatedly held up the score to the audience’s enthusiastic applause.

Steve Reich’s Quartet for two vibraphones and two pianos, written in 2013, is replete with constantly changing rhythmic patterns. Like the composer’s Pulitzer Prize winning Double Sextet, this score is prime Reich with a much more complex harmonic palette than his early minimalist pieces. The second movement is mesmerizing, exploiting the vibraphones’ multi-tinted hues as well as percussive sweep. Kevin Ritenauer and Charlie Rosmarin were fully equal to the daunting vibraphone writing, especially in the jazzed-up finale. Pianists Thomas Steigerwald and Wesley Ducote matched their colleagues in speed and clarity.

The U.S. premiere of Gruber’s Northwind Pictures was the evening’s major disappointment. Based on themes from Gruber’s 2005 opera Der Herr Norwind (Mr. Northwind), the work is a postmodern synthesis of jazz, avant garde modernist influences and retro European operatic strokes. 

Gruber utilized the same mashup successfully in his song cycle (or self described “pan-demonium) Frankenstein!!, his most famous work, but there is is not half as much fun here. Except for an extended lyrical cello solo, the score calls for the ensemble to almost constantly play at top volume, often at high pitch. Repeated flourishes by a wind machine and music box provide some novelty. Ultimately, the result is a coarse discourse that becomes wearying long before its 25 minutes have run their course. The New World players gave the chaotic work their best effort and Gruber conducted with enthusiasm.

Christian Reif conducts the New World Symphony in Julia Perry’s A Short Piece, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 and Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with soloist Augustin Hadelich  7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the New World Center in Miami Beach.

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Sun Nov 14, 2021
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