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S & H Prom Preview

Prom Preview: HK Gruber on ‘Dancing in the Dark’ (MH)


It’s nothing to do with Bjork or even Fred Astaire’s old hit. In fact HK Gruber, wild-eyed and genial eccentric of modern Viennese music, didn’t even think up the title of the piece he conducts at Saturday’s Prom. He described his new composition to British TV producer Barrie Gavin who was struck by the long twig-brush solo, ‘evoking someone like Fred Astaire coming out of the coffin and dancing on it in slow motion. Barrie said "Dancing in the dark". I thought his intuition exactly right!’

Gruber, ‘Nali’ to his friends, continues in his characteristically expressive English. ‘It’s horrible! Even Simon [Rattle] said, "This is rather not nice". I said, ja, ja. It’s quite unfriendly.’ He beams with glee.

Rattle commissioned what Nali proudly calls ‘the first fox-trot funeral march’ for the Vienna Philharmonic, with an ear to the rich orchestral sound traditionally associated with Vienna, Prague and Dresden, ‘it’s climax with Mahler, early Schoenberg, early Strauss.’ Nali eagerly went along with Rattle’s request for ‘Wagner tubas and tenor horns’, decoded to use them ‘for fun’, and eventually had a vision of ‘old and rusty instruments dreaming of a fox-trot 50 or 60 years ago.’ However offbeat the commission might have seemed to the notoriously conservative Vienna Phil (and its public), the premiere under Sir Simon was a smash hit.

As famous for his extrovert gifts as chanteur, actor and presenter as for composing, Nali’s been no stranger to the Proms since his Cello Concerto was played there in 1991. There followed the world premiere of "Ariel", Neeme Jarvi conducting the BBC SO. ‘I conducted Weill’s "Mahogany" with the BBC Philharmonic in 2000. And I’ve sung at a late-night Prom conducted by Thomas Adès’ – the latter a tribute to Nali’s passionate advocacy of Kurt Weill. Saturday’s band is the BBC Phil again.

Gruber actually likes the Albert Hall acoustic. The space tempts the composer in him to let rip. In "Ariel" I used four horns and three trumpets. This time I used four trumpets and six horns for the first time. I like energetic – I don’t want to say noise…’ But he does. ‘I think in the Albert Hall it will make some impression because of the…noise.’

A joyful noise? He’s solemn. ‘When composing it I thought, God, this is surprisingly serious, shockingly serious. When I found the rhythms going into a fox-trot I thought how one would hear it in a New Orleans funeral. It might say something about things we have lost. I don’t know. I can’t tell you.’ Flip, wry, irreverent, rueful, looking back to past glories and resigned about an unknown future. Very Viennese, this dancing in the dark.

Martin Hoyle

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