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Mozart, Satie, Hindemith and Gruber:  David Robertson (conductor and chansonnier), Ward Stare (conductor), Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Zankel Hall, New York City, 3.4.2009 (KKT)

Mozart: A Musical Joke [Ein Musikalischer Spaß] K522 (1787)
Satie: Relâche (1924) and Cinéma (1924)
Hindemith: Overture to Neues vom Tage (1930)
H K Gruber: Frankenstein!! – pan-demonium (1977)

The Saint Louis Symphony began their annual Carnegie Hall visit with an unusual program in Zankel Hall, apparently organized around the theme of humor in musical scores – and providing more surprise high-action exhilaration than anyone expected. 
They opened with a semi-staged version of Mozart's A Musical Joke, with music director David Robertson playing a befuddled and heavy-handed (heavy-armed, in fact) conductor, mystified by his string sections, utterly taken aback by the horns' misplaced lowings (when they weren't wandering off to play a game of chess) and finally a helpless victim of the concertmaster's ham-handed cadenza.  The piece as written is a broad enough joke not to actually need explanation, but the staging was extremely funny and had the audience - and some of the orchestra - cracking up throughout. 
Excerpts from Satie's ballet Relâche led into Cinéma, the score to a René Clair dada film.  After cycling among several short and unrelated amusing scenes (a dancer's bloomers, another chess game interrupted by a deluge), the film resolves in an extended final chase sequence.  Satie matches the unpredictability of the visuals with a choppily disjointed score, one of the earliest ever composed to time along with a projected film.  Though not written to stand alone, the music makes perfect sense with the movie, also developing from a series of short repeated fragments into the longer-sustained and exhausting chase - accelerating from a funeral march to a full-on race after a runaway coffin, and ending apace with modern vehicles and a roller coaster. 
Transportation also played a role in the second half of the program, as composer HK Gruber, who was to have voiced his own song cycle, was delayed en route from
Chicago.  Instead David Robertson ceded the podium to up-and-coming young conductor Ward Stare, while Robertson (having studied the role all afternoon) performed the sung and spoken vocals, and the extra instrumentation assigned to the chansonnier. 
Hindemith's Overture to Neues vom Tage was a bright and energetic bridge to this final work, providing a surprising burst of good humor from a composer not known for lightheartedness.  But Frankenstein!! – billed as a “pan-demonium” for baritone and orchestra - was the evening’s triumph. Robertson sang, yapped and growled his way through the rhymes with gusto, his voice going from a singsong falsetto down to a deep rumble, his long “monsterlet” solo in the middle inspiring a burst of applause from the audience.  The texts, often described as nursery rhymes, are not for children – full of warnings of things that are not as they seem or as you believe them to be, and of creatures that bite and hurt.  At ease and assured in his surprise Carnegie Hall debut, Ward Stare led the orchestra in a dynamic performance that ranged from coaxing to merry to downright sinister.  The piece is scored playfully, for standard instrumentation plus foam noodles, plastic mouth organs, bursting paper bags and other toy instruments, but for all its whimsy it is a disturbing work, shot through with blood, predation and threats.

Kathleen Kennedy Tobin

Ms. Tobin is a dramaturg and animator living in New York City.

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