Austrian composer-conductor HK Gruber has absolutely no problem with music being playful, enchanting, or even a little zany.
“When I was a child,” he said in a recent telephone interview from his home base in Vienna, “I liked light music a lot: jazz and pop. In the 1960s I was a big Beatles fan.”
There’ll be no Beatles numbers when he guest-conducts the Seattle Symphony next week. But the pieces on the program all have an immediate and sometimes eccentric appeal.
They include George Antheil’s ragtime-inflected “Jazz Symphony,” Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Suite from “On the Waterfront,” Gruber’s own percussion concerto (titled “Rough Music”) and the 1919 version of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite.”
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“Stravinsky was always my god,” Gruber says.
Antheil is an antic and somewhat forgotten American composer whose work, Gruber believes, deserves to be better known. As for Bernstein, the more Gruber talks about his encounters with him, the more his debt to him is clear.
Gruber, born in 1943, composed music from the time he was 6 and began his career as a member of the Vienna Boys’ Choir. He later became a double-bass player, performing with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra for almost 30 years (1969-1998).
“Our artistic director at the Vienna Boys Choir knew that I wanted to be a composer,” Gruber recalls, “and he supported this idea. But he said, ‘The world is not waiting for you as a composer. The world has already enough composers. So before you have any success, you have to earn money.’ ”
The solution, young Gruber was told, was to take up the double-bass and find job security as an orchestral musician.
“You go step by step,” his mentor explained, “and probably one day you are a successful composer, and you can give up the double-bass.”
That, says Gruber, is exactly what happened.
What no one anticipated was Bernstein’s role in Gruber’s career. The two men shared a music publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, and Bernstein — on the lookout for young talent working in a tonal style — soon was championing Gruber’s music, even if he never conducted it himself. When they met in person in Vienna in 1979, Bernstein explained why over a bottle of whiskey. He showed the younger man his concert schedule, which was solidly booked through 1986.
“As you can see,” Bernstein said, “there is not a single possibility for me to conduct your music. You must do it yourself — but I will make the public relations for you.”
Gruber assumed this was a joke. But he soon found himself getting invitations to orchestras in Paris, Brussels, San Francisco and other locales. In each case, he asked, “Who told you to invite me?”
The answer was always: “Lenny.”
Gruber still laughs in amazement at the memory.
“I owe him a lot,” he says. “I think he’s a remarkable composer.”
Gruber is no slouch himself. “Rough Music” is an eclectic three-movement concerto for a wide range of percussion instruments. It’s lithe, twisty and occasionally explosive in character. Seattle Symphony principal percussionist Michael A. Werner specifically pushed to put it on the orchestra’s agenda, as have percussionists in a number of symphonies throughout the world.
The piece’s title alludes to rural villagers’ old practice of making loud, obstreperous noises (clanging on pots, etc.) to register their disapproval of citizens who were in some way violating the status quo. Gruber sees the work as a musical account of “the problem between an individual and the majority, which can be very brutal.”
Its variety of sounds — everything from marimba to bongos to hi-hat, all continually in play with the orchestra — is typical of Gruber, whose more recent work, “Busking,” is concerto for trumpet, banjo, accordion and string orchestra.
“I like funny combinations,” he says, “things which normally are separated.”
At the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, where Gruber has been composer-conductor since 2008, he has the luxury of serving up whatever musical menu he pleases. He calls the orchestra “my Rolls-Royce … I can make my dream programs, which means mostly 20th century and ‘ink-still-wet’ composers.”
While he sometimes finds it tricky to maintain the 50/50 divide he’s after between composing and conducting, he relishes being on the podium.
“Composing takes a lot of time,” he says. “Empty pages produce stress … and when the pages are full with notes, you think: ‘Ach! Not good enough!’ … The life of a conductor is much easier.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org