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See It: Child’s Play

August 1, 2007, 12:00 am
Call it child's play if you like, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's kid-friendly, four-ring circus of a program at St. Francis Auditorium on July 29. And-drum roll, please-in the main ring: HK Gruber's madcap minor masterpiece of dark whimsy, his Frankenstein!! A Pan-demonium for Baritone Chansonnier and Ensemble.***image1***

This revised standard version of the Frankenstein story doesn't have much of a connection with Mary Shelley or Boris Karloff, though Gruber's fevered imagination shares a certain something with the fantasies of James Whale. The creepy delicious texts Gruber uses are a selection of "lovely new children's rhymes" by Viennese writer HC Artmann, whose poems chirpily deconstruct such cultural heroes as John Wayne, Superman, James Bond and Batman and Robin. Oh, and there's more than enough blood sucking and cannibalism to keep any child happy for hours.

As the speaking, crooning, gargling, growling chansonnier, Gruber, a great hulking bear of a man, resembles an Austrian Mel Brooks crossed with Raymond Briggs' immortal Fungus the Bogeyman. He's also a virtuoso of the kazoo. Toy instruments abound in the 12-piece accompanying ensemble conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky: slide-whistles, a tiny piano, hosepipes, even exploding paper bags, as well as the usual instrumental suspects.

But Gruber's music is anything but juvenile. It's a sophisticated, stylistic omnium-gatherum that mingles tango, jazz, Latin and big-band sounds with echoes of Weill, Walton (his brilliant setting of Edith Sitwell's poems, "Façade") and Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat. It's delightful. It's demented. It's delovely.

Which, alas, could not be said of the balance of the program. Ravel's original piano four-hands version of his "Mother Goose Suite" opens with a lifeless performance by Victor Santiago Asuncion and Marc Neikrug. Another piano four-hands work, Bizet's "Children's Games" receives a sloppy, uneven reading by Neikrug and distinguished Irish pianist John O'Conor.

Milarsky conductes another highly uneven, rackety performance of Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals," partially redeemed by Peter Stumpf's account of "The Swan." John Rubenstein narrated the charmingly passé (with references to hepcats and the Andrews Sisters) lyrics by Ogden Nash, which the program shamefully fails to credit.

You could have left the kiddies at home for the concert on July 26, especially with Mozart's D Minor Quartet, K. 421, opening the program. This, the second of the six so-called "Haydn" quartets, is the only one in a minor key and it's one of the composer's most deeply reflective, intensely dramatic excursions into the world of melancholy. The startling octave jump-down in the violin's opening phrase drops its listeners into something like Dante's dark woods and we're still not out of those woods when the abrupt, equally shocking and tragic closing measures of the work arrive. After a not-quite-together start, the Johannes Quartet's convincing performance avoided sweaty hyper-drama, concentrating instead on understatement and cool restraint.

No need for any of that in the next work, the Serenade in A Major by early 19th-century composer Mauro Giuliani, scored for violin (here, Giora Schmidt), cello (Zuill Bailey) and guitar (David Leisner). A triple scoop of gelato if there ever was one, the piece radiates a kind of rustic, unsophisticated good nature that includes a pretty opening, a pseudo-militaristic Scherzando and as its finale, a feast of frantic dotted rhythms.

To conclude the evening, John O'Conor joins the Johannes Quartet for a reading of Elgar's A Minor Piano Quintet (1918-19). It's a pity that the Chamberfest hasn't let us hear more of O'Conor, an artist of remarkable subtlety and grace, whose performances of Mozart, John Field and Beethoven are really exemplary. But it's always a pleasure to hear him and the rather odd and wonderful Elgar Quintet as well, especially in this vigorous performance.

There's that puzzling first movement that includes a swinging, slightly vulgar music-hall tune, book-ended by unsettling, fragmented opening and closing measures rather in the manner of Mahler. The Adagio, achingly lyrical and long-lined, seems a pastoral elegy for England's green and pleasant land, haunted for the composer by the events of the Great War. Although Elgar would return to this mode in the heart-breaking lament of his Cello Concerto, he never expresses himself more beautifully than in this slow movement. The finale, optimistic, fiercely energetic and performed with powerful conviction, provides a positive conclusion that, perhaps, the composer may not have truly felt.


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