It was a shame that the faces in the orchestra were so glum. Inviting the ebullient Austrian composer H.K. Gruber to conduct a concert with the London Schools Symphony Orchestra was a moment of inspiration, but while Gruber’s effervescence delighted the audience, his young charges stayed stony-faced (maybe concentrating hard?) throughout the evening.
When Gruber first attracted notice in the 1970s, it was as part of the so-called Third Viennese School, whose return to tonality rejected hard-line modernism. Now, in the 2010s, he looks more like a brilliant one-off, a showman who conjures his own personal style from an unlikely concoction of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Viennese popular music and the cabaret of Kurt Weill.
The main work of the evening was Gruber’s own Frankenstein!!, easily his best-known piece, described as a “pan-demonium for chansonnier and orchestra”. Its poems, like children’s nursery rhymes, parade a colourful line-up of characters from popular culture, embracing James Bond and John Wayne, and it takes a personality-and-a-half to bring off the high jinks of Gruber’s song-speech settings. The composer himself doubled as “chansonnier” and conductor here, as he has done in other recent performances, but that probably is not the best arrangement. If there had been a dedicated conductor, such as Simon Rattle at the premiere, the orchestra might have sounded less as if it was skating on thin ice, and Gruber could have established the eyeball-to-eyeball contact with his audience that his starring role demands. This felt as if everybody was doggedly trying to get to the end.
The rest of the programme took the young players on a whistle-stop tour of Gruber’s musical background. He started in the era of the great waltz, whirling them round the ballroom at quite a lick in the Overture to Strauss’s Die Fledermaus and marching briskly along to Strauss Snr’s “Radetsky” March. The pounding rhythms of Kurt Schwertsik’s With Giant Boots raised the temperature of the playing, but it was a pair of Stravinsky ballet scores that tested the LSSO to the full. The Circus Polka, originally with elephants in pink tutus, brought playing of real panache and, a few dodgy moments apart, the Suite from The Firebird was as exciting as in many a professional performance.