By Joshua Kosman
From SFGate.com (San Francisco Chronicle) - Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Modern composers don't come much jollier or more talkative than HK Gruber. An expansive and preposterously amiable grandfatherly type, he seems an odd choice to scare the daylights out of a Symphony audience.
Yet that's what he's in town for. Beginning tonight, Gruber will be the featured soloist with conductor Edwin Outwater and the San Francisco Symphony in his cabaret piece "Frankenstein!!," a comically ghoulish entertainment populated by monsters, vampires, spies, cowboys and superheroes.
And if the piece calls for outsize theatrical gestures, Gruber, 63, is obviously up to the task.
Interviewing Gruber is comically easy: You just say hello, and he does the rest. Within moments, here come the stories about the last musical project or the next one, about his first meeting with Leonard Bernstein, about the musical politics of his native Vienna. Here come extended disquisitions on music theory or the philosophy of modern composition.
Each anecdote spawns two more -- often in midstream -- to the point where it takes a trail of Hansel-and-Gretel bread crumbs to find your way back to the last conversational junction. And Gruber, speaking in fluent but heavily accented English, seems happy to let this torrent of narrative and reminiscence follow its own idiosyncratic course.
The period-free initials stand for his given names, Heinz Karl, but he is universally known as Nali, a nickname dating back to his childhood days as a member of the Vienna Boys' Choir. He spent his early years as a double-bass player before embarking on his current career as a composer, conductor and vocalist.
"Frankenstein!!" -- with a double exclamation point for extra terror -- is Gruber's biggest hit, a huge favorite with audiences ever since its 1977 premiere. It's set to offbeat children's rhymes by the late German poet H.C. Artmann, though Gruber makes a point of performing it in translation for non-German audiences, and the score abounds with unusual effects -- pennywhistles, toy instruments, even the rhythmic popping of paper bags.
But for all its theatrical accessibility and simple harmonies, Gruber regards "Frankenstein!!" as a truly avant-garde work -- or, to use his favorite designation, "hard core."
"This was written at a time when nobody trusted the possibility of tonality anymore," he says. "So one of the movements ends with an A-major chord, and the vocalist goes into a horrible cry, because A major is a shock for a specialist in modern music -- it's like garlic to a vampire."
Artmann's poetry, written during the tumultuous year 1968, was also shaped by the political and cultural currents of the time, he says.
"Many lines of these poems are taken from actual children's poems and alienated in a certain way, so that you could find behind the line some political associations or statements. And since the possibilities are so rich, each time finds its own way of making an imaginary theater of the piece. I used the toy instruments to alienate the orchestral sound in the same way.
"It's a piece made by a 33-year-old naughty youngster with musical ability," he adds with a broad grin. "When I listen to the piece it's like looking into the mirror, and there's a young Nali looking out. And I say, 'Hi, I'm still alive!' "
Gruber's position in the world of contemporary music is anomalous, and proudly so. He composes only for pleasure, he insists defiantly, and his pantheon of creative models is bewilderingly diverse.
As a lifelong resident of Vienna, he proclaims an allegiance to the so-called Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg -- much of his music, he says, is written "with Webern looking over my shoulder," and he continues to use the Schoenbergian 12-tone row as the basic structural device for even his tonal works.
He is a devoted performer of the music of Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, and a lot of his work -- including "Frankenstein!!" -- owes something to their pop-tinged theatricality. And in his devotion to the pleasure principle, he traces his roots to such French boulevard composers as Satie and Poulenc.
All of this makes for a precarious situation in his hometown.
"I am an outsider in Vienna. I don't belong to the hard-core family because I write tonal music. Anything that sounds tonal, they are very suspicious of because it's not contemporary enough. But if they do not understand a single part of it, then they are very happy because then it's very modern.
"The problem with my music is that it reminds them too much of music."
In between this week's rehearsals and performances, Gruber is racing to finish "Hidden Agenda," a large orchestra piece scheduled to be premiered this summer at the Lucerne Festival. A reluctant offering to the flurry of Mozart celebrations of this 250th birthday year, it promises to combine the characteristic Gruberian elements of wit, beauty and rigor.
"When I was first asked to do a piece for the Mozart year, I thought, 'No.' I was already bored with the Mozart year last year. I thought, if I were in charge of the Mozart year, I'd say, 'Let's play no Mozart,' and instead give commissions to lots of composers. He's a good composer, but our time needs other subjects."
But then Gruber remembered being alerted to the presence of a 12-tone row in one of Mozart's most famous orchestral scores, and suddenly he had the inspiration he needed. That tone row became the piece's organizing principle, the "hidden agenda" of the title, and seeking it out promises to be part of Gruber's game for listeners.
"I'm convinced that each piece must have a riddle," he says. "But you must give the audience a chance to find the solution."