HK Gruber’s Gloria – A Pig Tale, led by Alan Gilbert at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Chris Lee)

HK Gruber’s Appealing “Gloria — A Pig Tale” Opens NY Phil Biennial

ny-phil-biennial-logoOn Thursday, May 29, 2014, Alan Gilbert, the young and enterprising maestro of the New York Philharmonic, introduced New York City to the first ever NY Phil Biennial. Modeled after an established tradition typically associated with the world of visual art, the Philharmonic’s effort similarly celebrated contemporary works and their composers in various venues around the city. This connection to the art world made it all the more fitting, therefore, that the kick-off event in this new endeavor occurred deep inside the hallowed halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the stage of the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. The chosen repertoire was Austrian composer HK Gruber’s slapstick, barnyard opera, ‘Gloria — A Pig Tale,’ which uniquely brought together forces comprised of the Juilliard School’s Axiom ensemble (conducted by Gilbert) and visionary production company Giants Are Small, led by director Doug Fitch. To further compliment the first ever NY Phil Biennial, this production was also the first time such a colorful and elaborately staged production was attempted within the lecture hall setting of the Grace Rainey Rogers, a venue that continues to garner attention for progressive and innovative programming under the leadership of Concerts and Lectures General Manager Limor Tomer.

 HK Gruber's Gloria – A Pig Tale, led by Alan Gilbert at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Chris Lee)

HK Gruber’s Gloria – A Pig Tale, led by Alan Gilbert at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Chris Lee)

The production was extremely enjoyable, sung and acted with expert ease by a well-balanced cast of professionals and played energetically to professional standards by the talented students of Axiom. Despite these factors, which contributed strongly to my having left the hall with an irreversible smile on my face, a delicate and incessant haze presided over the performance, set in motion by a very curious and (dare I say, inappropriate) disclaimer made, surprisingly, by Gilbert. What made Gilbert’s tone so confusing was its apparent conflict with the overt mission of any biennial, which is to celebrate and illuminate the way contemporary artists are expressing themselves, not to apologize for it. Prior to striking up the band, Gilbert directed the words, “what were you thinking?” toward the composer (who was in attendance) in a casual, sarcastic tone and assured the audience they had never heard anything like what was about to occur on the stage.

These remarks were made all the more difficult to grasp, as Gilbert’s own past collaborations with Giants Are Small included a concert setting of Gyorgy Ligeti’s revolutionary opera Le Grand Macabre, on the stage of Avery Fisher Hall. Ligeti’s infamous work boasts a gigantic orchestra fleshed out by car horns, electric doorbells, chromatic harmonicas and paper bags, and plumbs the depths of madness in a post-apocalyptic landscape peopled by frightening weirdos mostly screaming a libretto peppered by expletives and raucous sexual innuendo. It is safe to go so far as to say Ligeti’s work is totally weird and crazy, and utterly unique.

Alan Gilbert - Photo Chris Lee

Alan Gilbert – Photo Chris Lee

Gruber’s work, in contrast, was certainly fun and decidedly non-derivative in its staging and presentation, but was not altogether as unusual or crazy as the program or Maestro Gilbert’s concise disclaimer would have had the audience believe, indeed what it seemed they wanted the audience to believe. In fact, the chosen subject immediately recalled the details of Igor Stravinsky’s Renard, another barnyard adventure, which was composed ninety-eight years ago and premiered by the Ballets Russes in 1922. From a purely musical perspective, Stravinsky’s work remains somewhat more innovative and individualistic, despite its antiquity, and emphasized Gruber’s contrasting technique in the conglomeration and emulation of various styles and influences. In terms of scope and aesthetic, Gruber’s choices also brought to mind the more recent works of Spanish-American composer Leonardo Balada, whose operas Hangman! Hangman! and Faustbal exist in a similarly eccentric space but clearly exhibit the staunch individuality of the composer’s vocabulary.

Even in the absence of these comparisons, it was apparent that Gruber’s piece was designed to be appealing, a compliment perhaps even more deserving of Doug Fitch’s directing and the cast’s absolute compatibility.

When held up against such a delightful production, strong cast and orchestra and the exciting innovation of the venue in presenting this work, it seems a shame to dwell upon such a minor and innocuous point in the evening as the conductor’s preface and warning. Nonetheless it begs to illustrate the significant limit to which making such presumptions about one’s audience can sabotage the integrity of any great work of art in presentation. In the end, the audience’s possible appreciation for the work is irreversibly tainted by remarks such as these to the point of becoming a hindrance and not an enhancement. Being told that the work is ‘crazy’ and instructed to believe that its composer is unusual and ‘iconoclastic’ (to quote the program) only halts the inexperienced listener from bringing his own meaning to the work, and forces the experienced listener to counter these remarks at the expense of an otherwise successful piece by turning the dialogue to what it wasn’t, rather than what it could have been.

HK Gruber - Credit Intermusica

HK Gruber – Credit Intermusica

The implications of what the NY Phil Biennial can do for the future of classical music and its generations of living composers and artists are extremely exciting, and despite these criticisms have opened the door to enlightening new ways in which symphony orchestras may engage with established and new audiences alike. Fear, however, can be contagious, and if the artistic establishment enters into such an endeavor with a fearful and apologetic edge, these unfortunate elements will ultimately rise to the surface to be remembered instead of the work that deserves to be illuminated.