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Gruber Trumpet Concerto Dominates


Håkan Hardenberger on Sunday afternoon (Hilary Scott photo)

On another perfect Tanglewood Sunday afternoon (July 14th), the Koussevitzky Shed concert began with a Beethoven symphony and ended with the sensuous “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Strauss’s Salome. Between these came a challenging trumpet concerto written for and played by international superstar Håkan Hardenberger.

When thinking about Beethoven’s love of the outdoors, people always refer to the sixth symphony, known as the Pastoral. But hearing the Symphony No. 4 on a Sunday afternoon when surrounded by greenery and clear air, it is hard not to imagine it as another kind of “pastoral” work—the slow movement especially, but also the high spirits of the Scherzo and the sweetness of the Trio, not to mention the cheerful energy of the finale, with its occasional hints of a brief thunderstorm! Andris Nelsons presented this less frequently heard of Beethoven’s symphonies with a spirited mood that seemed absolutely perfect for a summer day.

HK Gruber is connected to a lot of Austrian music, both as a descendant of the composer of “Silent Night” and as a member for four years of the Vienna Choirboys, ending when he turned 14. Currently a double-bass player and an active composer, he made a first splash in the United States when Gunther Schuller conducted the American premiere of his satirical Frankenstein!! in 1980. The substantial work for baritone narrator and large orchestra, marked a continuation of the years in which he and his colleague Kurt Schwertsik both sought ways to get free of the mid-century academic style.

Hardenberger had performed the trumpet concerto Aerial, with Nelsons and the Boston Symphony last November. It presents challenges for a series of trumpets of various kinds, calling for both great breath control for long-held notes, as well as virtuosic technique for fast-moving, staccato, ever-changing figures. Its two linked movements, both considered as pictorial, derive from poetic texts or film imagery. The first movement draws its title from Emily Dickinson’s Wild Nights (incidentally, a poem that inspired John Adams’s Harmonium, performed by the BSO and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under the direction of Simon Rattle about 20 years ago): “Done with the compass—Dance with the Chart!” The first movement, which is mostly slow in tempo, requires the soloist to begin both playing a note on the C trumpet and singing a different one, to produce still different pitches. At other times, he must bend the pitch of the instrument and make other adjustments to change the pitch. Eventually he switches to the cow horn, which is in itself a challenging and unstable instrument to play in tune, with a sound far less “clean” than that of a brass trumpet. The orchestra backs these gestures with sustained sonorities from the world of jazz and the blues. By the end of the movement, Hardenberger switches to a piccolo trumpet (used in modern performances mostly for brilliant Baroque music) and the orchestra follows suit,

In the composer’s view, the second movement Gone Dancing suggests a deserted planet where a dance party reminiscent of Hollywood musicals. According to annotator Robert Kirzinger, staccato passages, a solo trumpet by turns muted and open, and the irregular meters, suggest a Middle Eastern flavor. At the end, the orchestra begins to disappear, leaving the soloist again with the piccolo trumpet, sustained alone, almost longer than one can imaging breath is possible.

Aerial is greatly challenging for both the soloist and the members of the large orchestra, all of whom have a wide range of techniques to encompass. In the effective and very tight performance (thanks in part to the performances last winter), Hardenberger demonstrated the stamina and flexibility that have contributed to his international reputation.

On the face of it, I wondered at first why one would choose to end a concert program with the wild, loud, often slinky music of the sexy dance Salome performs for her stepfather Herod in order to get revenge for the prophet’s failure to respond to her passionate attraction to him by having is head delivered to her on a platter. But after hearing the Gruber trumpet concerto, I realized that the music fit for several reasons: both called for a large orchestra, which was, by and large, already waiting on the stage; and the exotic “Middle Eastern flavor” of the finale of Gruber’s piece was balanced by Strauss’s equally exotic sensuous strip-tease score, which begins subtly and quietly, eventually building to a massive display of orchestral energy and color, in which the Boston Symphony excelled.

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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