Length: 22 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd
= piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone (= soprano saxophone), tenor saxophone (= soprano saxophone), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (crotales, drum set, glockenspiel, marimba, large tam-tam, xylorimba, vibraphone), piano, strings, and solo trumpet (also piccolo trumpet and cow horn)
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances: (U.S. premiere)
HK Gruber had an impeccable Viennese training. A member of the Vienna Boys’ Choir for four years, he studied composition with Hanns Jellinek and Gottfried von Einem at the Hochschule für Musik, then played doublebass in the Tonkünstler Orchestra and the Austrian Radio Symphony. But as a composer, Gruber has followed his own course. Reacting against the sort of formidable, audience-unfriendly music being written by the avant garde, Gruber and fellow Austrian composer Kurt Schwert-sik set out to write an intentionally accessible music, one sometimes based on elements of pop culture (Beatles tunes, comic strip characters) and frequently incorporating elements of humor and play. Gruber’s most popular work is Frankenstein!! (1978), a “pandemonium” that sets H. C. Artmann’s droll and spooky children’s poems about Batman, John Wayne, James Bond, Goldfinger, and other pop culture figures. Scored for an ensemble that can include toy instruments, Frankenstein!! has been performed more than a thousand times around the world, often with Gruber himself as “chansonnier.” This in turn points to the breadth of Gruber’s art: he composes, conducts, plays, sings, and narrates, and his readiness to fuse text, theater, and music sometimes produces results that border on the cabaret.
Gruber composed Aerial in 1998-99 on a commission from the British Broadcasting Corporation for the BBC Promenade Concerts, and it was first performed at Royal Albert Hall on July 29, 1999, by Håkan Hardenberger and the BBC Symphony under Neeme Järvi.
One of the most impressive aspects of Aerial is its difficulty, for both soloist and orchestra. Gruber conferred with Hardenberger throughout its composition, and the result is a concerto that pushes a trumpet soloist to the limits of that instrument. In fact, Gruber requires that the soloist play three different instruments: trumpet in C, piccolo trumpet in B-flat (familiar from baroque music), and cowhorn (whose ancient sound rings through several Wagner operas and Britten’s Spring Symphony). Gruber then makes dizzying demands on his soloist, in the process creating a range of sound rarely heard from these instruments. At certain points (the very beginning is one of them), the soloist must play and sing through his instrument simultaneously. At other moments, the soloist must play with portamenti that flare off the written pitch.
Aerial is scored for a very large orchestra that includes four saxophones and a huge percussion section, but Gruber then writes with a transparency that allows the solo trumpet to emerge cleanly from the complex accompaniment. As with so many of Gruber’s works, there is a dimension of theater to Aerial, as audiences will discover as they watch. Inevitably, a concerto should be “about” virtuosity, and Aerial provides that in abundance, but it also offers a sense of humor and fun – and a readiness to entertain and communicate with an audience.
The publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, has offered a description of the music that reads in part:
“The concerto offers two aerial views, firstly an imaginary landscape beneath the Northern Lights bearing an inscription from Emily Dickinson’s poem Wild Nights: “Done with the compass – Done with the chart!” In part this refers to the pure invention that can be conjured up through the skills of a great trumpeter, with Hardenberger here as the magician, casting an incantatory spell (perhaps with a little help from his native troll art?). The concerto opens with the trumpeter playing and singing the work into being, conjuring up the mythological image of the creation of music as Pan blows into the reed into which the nymph Syrinx has been transformed...
“The second and larger of the two aerial views, entitled Gone Dancing, provides an energetic contrast, with glimpses of two exuberant examples of “light” music at its best, but viewed as if from another planet – our world is empty of human life, but a lone sign bears the words Gone Dancing. The movement opens in the West in the 1940s with Fred and Ginger creating a toe-tapping dance dialogue, and this moves into outdoor folkmusic of a distinctly Eastern hue with the soloist progressively assuming the role of leader of the village band.”
— Eric Bromberger has written notes for the Minnesota Orchestra, the Washington Performing Arts Society, and the La Jolla Chamber Music Society, among others.