Composer H.K. Gruber's eeny, meeny, miney, monster "Frankenstein" spreads pan-demonium at Simon's Rock

GREAT BARRINGTON - "Frankenstein!!" is coming. Here's a sample:

"mister superman, put on your pants /else someone's bound to know you. / that lois lane is on her way / to jump in bed with you, sir, / poing poing crash crash / crash crash poing poing / she's out to trap you in a snare / and I, the holy kryptonus, am there / so heed my warning!"

That, poing poing, is a taste of the theater piece that The Orchestra Now (TON) is bringing to Simon's Rock Tuesday at 7:30. Composer H.K. Gruber describes the 1979 work as "a pan-demonium for chansonnier and orchestra after children's rhymes by H.C. Artmann."

And who was Artmann? An Austrian poet, to whose book "Noises, noises, all around — lovely new children's rhymes" the Austrian Gruber turned for his texts. Rhymes like a warning from the holy kryptonus.

Nonsense? Satire? Grimm Brothers? Disney? All of those?

"It's bizarre. I mean, the texts are really bizarre, and I'm not really sure I know exactly what some of them mean," admits James Bagwell, who will conduct the ensemble of music students from Bard College, Simon's Rock's parent institution.

TON is often adventurous like that. More conventionally, the Simon's Rock program begins with Sibelius' "Valse triste" and ends with Haydn's Symphony No. 104 ("London"). Bagwell is the orchestra's associate conductor, under Bard president Leon Botstein, who doubles as its director.

In this case, the "chansonnier" is a clue to the meaning, or non-meaning, of it all. A chansonnier is a nightclub singer-speaker, and "Frankenstein!!" is a kind of extended cabaret act with a sometimes shrieking, jibbering narrator (student baritone Nathaniel Sullivan takes the role here) and a serious, even political undertone.

The half-hour work, to be performed in English translation, exists in versions for full or chamber orchestra. TON is doing the chamber version. In effect, it calls for a pit band of 12 members. The Sibelius and Haydn works will be performed by a full complement of players.

Bagwell compares "Frankenstein!!" to Brecht-Weill satires, especially "The Threepenny Opera." Besides playing standard instruments, the musicians double on car horns, kazoo, blown-up and exploded paper bags and other toy instruments. Percussionists twirl hose pipes over their heads like lassos to make birdlike noises.

Rather than being merely "playful," the sounds from the kids' instruments serve a definite harmonic function, Gruber says.

Monsters abound. So do pop culture heroes like Superman and Lois Lane. Or Batman and Robin, who become gay lovers. The two exclamation points in the title, according to Gruber, signify that while Frankenstein might be in the background, we forget him at our peril.

Slyly disclaiming any political intent, the composer nevertheless declares: "The monsters of political life have always tried to hide their true faces, and all too often succeed in doing so."

In a telephone interview, Bagwell said he discovered "Frankenstein!!" while finishing his doctoral studies at Indiana University. Though this is the first time he has conducted it — a New York performance on Sunday preceded tonight's performance — he was gripped by "the kind of Grimm fairy tale" plunge into "the more gruesome side of things."                                                                      

He cited, for example, a text that begins, "Frankenstein is dancing with the test tube lady " It slips back and forth between fantasy and "someone with a wicked sense of humor telling a child a fairy tale," he says.                                                                                                                                  

Despite the fantastic elements, the conductor says Gruber is "deadly serious" as a composer and "Frankenstein!!" is "held together by compositional rigor," including use of counterpoint. That and the theatrical aspect are what bind the program together, he says: "Valse triste" was composed as incidental music for a play, and "Haydn had a great sense of humor but also compositional rigor."                                                                                                                                                      

In the end, though, Bagwell says, "I just like the piece. I have to say, it's a really terrific piece. It just holds together well and it rehearses well, too He's a very crafty composer."


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