H.K. (as in Heinz Karl) Gruber paid us a welcome return visit last week, while memories of last year’s trumpet concerto – appropriately titled Aerial — continue their happy throb. At the season’s final Green Umbrella, he unfurled his Zeitfluren (“Timescapes”), a new piece co-commissioned by the Philharmonic’s New Music Group, along with music by two Viennese compatriots that made his own piece sound even better.
For all its musical glory – which embraces the beloved “Silent Night” by H.K.’s distant ancestor Franz – Vienna has always ranked behind other European centers as a supporter of hardcore new musical impulses. In his preconcert talk Gruber spoke of the Philharmonic’s New Music Group in tones of genuine envy – not only for its high performance qualities but also for its role as a catalyst among its colleagues to spark the full orchestra’s supportive attitude toward new music. Matters in Vienna, he said, were improving, but slowly. The city does now boast one or two decently qualified new-music ensembles, although they usually perform to half-empty halls. (I am constantly delighted at the turnout for the Green Umbrella concerts here, and at the interesting mix of listeners, some wet behind the ears and others long in the tooth.)
If the music chosen and conducted by Gruber for this concert sends any message, however, it is that caution remains the abiding Viennese watchword. First there was the Verwandlungsmusik (“Transformation Music”) by Kurt Schwertsik, a veritable toy box of bright-colored shards: tiny fanfares, a “little overture,” an even smaller “triumph march,” a “parade,” a “little finale,” and an “after-dance” with some attractive rhythmic craziness – all bearing the message of painless, germ-free modernity. Friedrich Cerha, best known for his completion of Alban Berg’s not-quite-finished Lulu, sent along his Eight Movements After Hölderlin Fragments, a string sextet permeated with the dense passions of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night of 104 years ago and pretty much cut from the same harmonic fabric.
There was no problem, therefore, in recognizing Gruber’s own work as by far the evening’s strongest. Its major strength is its marvelous scoring – for an ensemble of 18 winds, brass, strings, piano and percussion – and the clarity as inner voices seem suspended in space. Wit and wisdom form an impeccable counterpoint; ordinary as some of its melodic inspiration may be at times, there is always a twist, a turn toward the unexpected. A first movement is overcast with a dark, luminous blanket of dust and shadows; a second movement emerges into a blinding light pierced with distant echoes of Vienna’s dance-band past. Overall, this is sterner stuff than Gruber’s most famous work, the hilariously endearing Frankenstein!! (exclamation points ‘n’ all), but the twinkle is there all the same.
In 1948 the Louisville Orchestra, like so many other not-quite-full-time ensembles, was in financial trouble. Unlike many other communities with hopes for artistic eminence, Louisville had a mayor who was also chairman of the orchestra board, and Charlie Farnsley determined that something needed to be done. And while the two major steps he proposed might strike you as contradictory, they worked. First, he reduced the size of the orchestra from 70 to 50. Second, he created a commissioning project: The orchestra would pay for, perform and record five new works every year. 1948 was also the year of the LP, and these new works were to be recorded on this newfangled technology that had already begun to catch on. The composers chosen were world-famous; the first batch included Paul Hindemith, William Schuman, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson and Darius Milhaud.
The commissioning program, with funding along the way from the Rockefeller Foundation, eventually wound down; by 1959 the Louisville Orchestra had premiered and recorded 116 works by 101 composers. Further money came along: a two-year grant from BMI, a wad from the Ford Foundation. Robert Whitney, who conducted the orchestra at the start of the program, was later replaced; among his successors was Jorge Mester, currently of the Pasadena Symphony. By 1995 the total had swelled to 158 LPs and 10 CDs, more than 400 works by 250 composers.
Now there is “First Edition Music,” run by the Santa Fe Music Group, with plans to reissue the entire Louisville caboodle on CD. Seven discs are at hand; eight more are planned for this year. While major producers prune their catalogs down to Beethoven for Babes and the like, here is a project that restores, in one grandiose gesture, a huge block of creative endeavor in the recent history of serious music. The parameters set by Farnley and his group were broad and intelligent – not just American composers, but good composers with a world-view: Hindemith, Ernst Krenek, Luigi Dallapiccola, Andrej Panufnik.
Not every item is of vital importance, of course. Working my way through the arm-waving, empty oratory of Roy Harris’ Violin Concerto or his Fifth Symphony, I can easily understand why his music is currently out of fashion. A whole disc of John Corigliano, including the Piano Concerto of which better performances are available, ends up as 67 minutes 44 seconds of the same thing endlessly repeated. The picture-postcard exoticism of Alan Hovhaness loses its only reason for existence under Robert Whitney’s uneventful baton, with the sound in remastered mono. It needs an Ormandy and a Philadelphia sound. A whole disc of Henry Cowell’s orchestral music is full of the congenial blandness of his last years, sidestepping the truly enterprising works of earlier times.
But then, among this first set of reissues, there is a disc of George Crumb’s glorious, insolent orchestral inventions, including the 1968 Pulitzer-blessed Echoes of Time and the River. Jorge Mester is the conductor, and it’s time he performed it here in Pasadena. What grand deviltry is here! What an amazing collage of textures, as percussionists troop across the stage, string players croak out nonsense syllables, and the xylophone taps out messages in Morse code. It isn’t that nobody writes this kind of music anymore; it’s just that nobody gets to hear it. In Louisville, once upon a time, they knew what to do.