Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/David Robertson – A Musical Joke … Relâche … Neues vom Tage … Frankenstein!!

Ein Musikalischer Spass, K522
Relâche [excerpts]
Cinéma [performed with René Clair’s 1924 film, “Entr’acte”]
Neues vom Tage – Overture
HK Gruber

David Robertson (chansonnier) [Gruber]

Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson
Ward Stare [Gruber]

Reviewed by: Gail Wein

Reviewed: 3 April, 2009
Venue: Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City

David RobertsonIf anyone in New York needed relief from the tumbling stock market, the rising unemployment numbers or just simply the solemnity of your average symphony orchestra concert, this St Louis Symphony Orchestra concert had the remedy. In this program of ‘humor in music’ with Saint Louis Symphony music director David Robertson, there were more than a few guffaws.

The joke was on Robertson and the orchestra, as multiple airline snafus meant that neither their featured guest – HK Gruber as chansonnier in his own composition “Frankenstein!!” – nor the ensemble’s luggage containing the musicians’ concert attire showed up in time for the performance.

In a remarkable, if not brave feat, Robertson himself stepped in for Gruber, intoning the lines of children’s rhymes by H. C. Artmann in sprechstimme (singing-speech) style that the piece calls for. The SLSO’s resident conductor, Ward Stare, stepped up to the podium to take Robertson’s place. The chansonnier is called upon to speak, sing, whistle, play a tin whistle, kazoo and other instruments, and embody a raft of different characters over the course of the thirty-minute piece. Robertson, sight-reading the part, performed admirably in every aspect of the score, growling, squealing, and dissolving into dramatic hysterics in one particularly show-stopping moment.

The orchestra members responded well to this novelty score and to Stare’s solid direction. Some of the winds and brass were called upon to double as percussionists, picking up ratchets and swinging plastic tubes, and they all seemed to have a good time doing so. The percussion section itself gets a workout and often made the orchestra sound like a Broadway band.

There were many laugh-out-loud moments during A Musical Joke, the epitome of Mozart behaving badly, a parody of inept composition written a couple of hundred years before 20th-century musical humorist PDQ Bach penned his infamous wacky spoofs. Robertson played up every joke with exaggerated robot-like moves, perplexed facial expressions, and feigned bad conducting to match Mozart’s faux-lousy composition. Players were caught smiling during the performance, and a genuine good time was had by all, including the audience.

René Clair’s surrealist films were the source of the humor in Erik Satie’s Relâche and Cinéma. From a bearded ballerina to a camel-drawn hearse, so many of the images were downright weird and often very funny in their disconnected way, an example of Dada art at its height. The artist Francis Picabia commissioned Satie to write the music for his Surrealist ballet, Relâche, and even the title is absurd; it is the word used to announce a cancelled performance. It was a rare pleasure to have live orchestral accompaniment to the films, and Robertson and the orchestra gave Satie’s music just the right wry twist.

One would have had to read the synopsis of Hindemith’s opera “Neues vom Tage” (News of the Day) to get the humor in his pithy overture, but a ridiculously funny story it is. A young couple in the throes of divorce wind up as celebrities, re-enacting their spats in the theatre. Their close working conditions bring them back together, but their fans, thirsting for the entertainment of their quarrels, won’t let them reunite. Under Robertson’s guidance, the Saint Louis Symphony nimbly navigated the score, outlining the absurdist story with circus-like abandon, contrasted by a beguiling bassoon solo in the core of the piece.

This evening of music and fun was a great start to the weekend, and an excellent prelude to the orchestra’s more serious fare at Carnegie Hall the following night. And if David Robertson’s premiere performance as chansonnier is any indication, he has a promising career in the theatre in addition to his current status as a world-class conductor.

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