The Orchestra Now brings pan-demonium for our times to Simon's Rock
Fittingly, it was The Orchestra Now, in a concert Tuesday night at Simon's Rock, that made Gruber's 1978 work a morality (or amorality) tale for our time, now.
The Austrian composer is coy about whether his cabaret-style "pan-demonium for chansonnier and orchestra" is political in intent, and you can interpret it any way you want. But the half hour of mayhem of styles, narration by demented "chansonnier," and obsession with monsters, rats and vampires puts meaning into the seeming meaninglessness of the age of Trump — and you can take that whether your point of view is either left or right. Among other things, the piece is just plain funny.
Under associate conductor James Bagwell, the orchestra of graduate students from Bard College's main campus came to Bard's Simon's Rock outpost for a stimulating, even exciting concert that began and ended, improbably with Sibelius' "Valse triste" and Haydn's Symphony No. 104 ("London"). Bagwell is best known as a choral conductor but he had these hand-picked students thoroughly at home in three wildly different orchestral styles.
"Frankenstein!!" first. It's a mix of everything from Schoenberg, Weill and Sondheim to waltz, tango, march and who knows what else. The nearest way to get at it is to say that it combines the "speech-talk" of Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" with the biting irony of the Brecht-Weill "Threepenny Opera." Frankenstein himself doesn't show his face till late in the piece. By then, he's in good company with a load of loonies.
Bagwell performed the piece in Gruber's chamber, rather than full orchestral, version.
Toy instruments — kazoos, exploded paper bags and hoses twirled overhead to create birdlike whirrings — spice the "Pierrot"-like ensemble. The texts are sort of updated Grimm fairy talks by the Austrian poet H.C. Artmann.
The key to the show is that crazed chansonnier, who alternates narration with strutting, marching in place and whipping out a battery of kazoos, whistles, pipes and other kiddie noise makers. Student baritone Nathaniel Sullivan put on a virtuoso show in the part, and it's a shame that only bits of his rapid-fire, spit-it-out text delivery were intelligible. Not that much of the text makes any strictly logical sense, but it does have a kind of loopy logic of its own.
Wish the chansonnier happy adenoids after all that shouting, jibbering, screeching and jumping up and down — quite a workout. And wish The Orchestra Now many happy returns to the Berkshires after a show like this.
In a pre-concert interview, Bagwell tried to link the Sibelius, Gruber and Haydn works through theatrical and humorous connections. From the stage, a student speaker found a Viennese strain.
Fact is, the pieces did not really speak to one another. But let's be grateful for performances as exhilarating as these. "Valse triste" became a miniature drama, going from melancholy to false ecstasy before subsiding back into melancholy, In a five-minute span.
In Haydn, with an orchestra of about 35, Bagwell went for a big sound and bold gestures that would probably have set the teeth of period-instrument fanciers on edge. But even if some of the effects seemed to overwhelm the music, the lively spirit — the sheer enthusiasm and fun — made up for any loss.
The Orchestra Now comes dressed in blue for the women and black with blue ties for men. Besides introducing the pieces, players mingle with the audience during intermission. It's a class act. The orchestra has come a long way since music director and Bard president Leon Botstein introduced it three years ago. May it continue to flourish. And may the cheering section that sat in one corner of the audience learn not to interrupt the flow of the music with misplaced applause.