HK Gruber

A recent concert of the New York Philharmonic saw a premiere—that of HK Gruber’s Piano Concerto. And “Piano Concerto” is indeed what the piece is called. It is Gruber’s only piano concerto so far. A composer thinking about piano concertos to come might dub his first one “Piano Concerto No. 1.”

We refer to Grieg’s Op. 16 as his “Piano Concerto.” Same with Schumann (same key, too: A minor). We refer to his Op. 54 as his “Piano Concerto.” Occasionally, I’ll speak of the “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto” or the “Bruch Violin Concerto” or the “Shostakovich Violin Concerto.” Tchaikovsky wrote more than one; Bruch wrote more than one; Shostakovich wrote more than one.

But we know what we mean, right? The famous ones blot out the others.

Back to HK Gruber. Who is he? He is Heinz Karl Gruber, an Austrian composer born in 1943. His best-known work is Frankenstein!!—and you have noted the two exclamation points, I hope. It is a funny work for singer-actor and orchestra: funny peculiar and funny ha-ha.

Gruber was once a professional bass player. (He may still be, though I’m not sure.) He was also, once upon a time, a member of the Vienna Boys’ Choir. And he is strange, for an Austrian composer born in 1943: he likes music. Even stranger, he wants you to like it too. Gruber has much more in common with Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler than he does with the composers who have dominated his time and place.

He got his piano concerto from a recent opera of his: Tales from the Vienna Woods. (Hey, where’d he get that title?) He took some music from his opera and applied it to his concerto. In the concerto, he performs variations.

I’ll tell you what I remember: The beginning of the concerto is jokey. For the piano, there are simple chords, played by the left hand. Through much of the concerto, the pianist noodles while the orchestra plays. Often, there will be sustained lines in the strings—melodic lines—while the pianist does his noodling. There is some honky-tonk brass along the way. And a lovely saxophone. Frequently, there are tricky rhythms—very tricky rhythms.

Alan Gilbert, on the podium, handled this superbly, from what I could tell. He is an outstanding manager and exponent of new works, especially when they are complicated.

As I listened to the concerto, I thought of an old line: “symphony with piano obbligato.” But that was not quite right. For one thing, Gruber’s work is far from a symphony. As it happens, the composer himself came up with just the right expression. It was printed in the Philharmonic’s program notes: “sinfonietta with piano solo.”

An odd duck, this piano concerto. I think it relates more to Strauss’s Burleske, let’s say, than to a traditional concerto. I also think of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1. It has a larky aspect (like the Gruber work).

In seasons to come, and decades to come, will pianists want to play Gruber’s concerto? Hard to say, of course. Maybe when they want something offbeat, and slightly retro. At the premiere, Emanuel Ax was the soloist, and he seemed to enjoy the experience. He was a very good sport. Then, when isn’t he?

I think the Gruber Piano Concerto is a piece that interested and amused the composer, in his own head. That is important. Did it interest and amuse me? Not especially. I admired the work—it is done by a craftsman, and a genuine spirit—but I found it tedious. It seemed to me more an exercise in preparation for a real piece than the piece itself.

But I would like to hear it again, before writing it off. And if I’m then tempted to write it off, I should hear it a third time. And I applaud HK Gruber for liking music, and caring whether we do too.

P.S. This is something you will applaud: a podcast with Eric Simpson, The New Criterion’s associate editor, on the New York music season (in its second half). (With glances back at the first, too.) His sidekick is me. Eric is a great pleasure to talk with, and I think the music-minded will enjoy it.