Ax, Gilbert and Philharmonic winningly introduce new Gruber concerto

01.06.17
Emanuel Ax
New York Classical Review

To hear Emanuel Ax’s performance of HK Gruber’s Piano Concerto Thursday night with the New York Philharmonic, one might imagine he’d been playing the piece his whole life, it sounded so seasoned and “lived in.”
 
It was enough to make one open the program again and stare in wonder at the words, “World Premiere.”
 
Although the pianist was playing with a score open on the piano, neither his performance, nor that of the orchestra under music director Alan Gilbert, ever suggested a rocky first reading.  Instead, Gruber’s lively, attractive piece—an international co-commission by the Philharmonic and three other orchestras–spoke directly to the audience in accents jazzy one moment and Romantic the next. The concerto was welcomed into the world with a warm ovation at the end.
 
Now in his 70s, the Austrian composer first came on the scene as something of a bad boy of the age of serialism, introducing retro elements in his scores, especially the style of cabaret, long before it became fashionable.  In addition to composing, he has made a career of vocal performance in the speech-singing style of a cabaret M.C.
 
James M. Keller’s Philharmonic program notes made much of all this, and to reinforce the point Gilbert prefaced the new 20-minute concerto with the snide yet silky sounds of Kurt Weill’s music for The Threepenny Opera, arranged for woodwinds by the composer. 
 
At the concerto’s opening, a jaunty, sarcastic little tune for muted trumpet seemed to promise more of the same.  But the concerto ethos quickly engulfed the cabaret one, and Weill receded, to be replaced by glittering, Gershwin-like piano syncopations and lush orchestral sonorities à la Rachmaninoff.