Haydn, Gruber, Webern, Beethoven
A fun, if a bit unorthodox, evening with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall. The young American conductor Joshua Weilerstein clearly found his element, bookending Haydn and Beethoven around Gruber and Webern.
The overture to Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation opened the mood. Describing “chaos,” this music was considered extreme in its day – Haydn left phrases unfinished and with chords open, reminding us that music need not go by formula.
That certainly applied on the next piece: Frankenstein!! A Pandemonium for Chansonnier and Orchestra after Nursery Rhymes by H.C. Artmann, music by H. K. Gruber. Gruber’s output is decidedly mixed – it has its moments but usually requires severe editing that he does not do in order to identify a point. Frankenstein!! may be the first of his works that I actually enjoyed start to finish. To be honest, I still am not sure what to make of it, but at least this one was fun. Gruber himself performed as the chansonnier, using his voice to obtain full special effects. The Orchestra achieved the other effects not by abusing their instruments, as many of Gruber’s contemporaries think is necessary for “new music” but by pulling out children’s toys and playing those. The songs were short and varied enough not to ever drag, with suspense added to hear what they’d do next.
After the intermission, the orchestra returned for Anton von Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. Weilerstein gave a short intro to remind everyone that the five-movement work lasted only four minutes in its entirety. Therefore, he decided to perform it twice: once to allow the audience to listen to its overall color, and the second time to focus on the individual sounds. That actually worked. Weilerstein explained that Webern had distilled all of 20th century music into its bare minimum components, but it was all there. Indeed it was. Webern said so much with so little.
That said, I still found it rewarding to return to something more normal to finish the concert: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony #4. This symphony does not get performed often, but has long been admired by those in the know. Its mysterious slow opening leads into a boisterous first movement, and it dances away from there. Many people see it as lighter and more relaxed compared to its neighbors, but Weilerstein – building on Haydn, Gruber, and Webern – emphasized just how much fun this symphony can be. This was not a tranquil reading, but one full of action and humor.