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HK Gruber: Aerial lift-off

(January 2000)

Austrian composer HK Gruber has been particularly acclaimed for his concertos, and his most recent work in this form, Aerial, written for Swedish virtuoso trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger, was unveiled to public and critical enthusiasm in London on 29 July. The work was commissioned by the BBC Proms and given its premiere by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Hardenberger is featuring the are already scheduled in Vienna (19 November 1999), Copenhagen (23 March 2000), Birmingham (1 November 2000), Berlin (18/19 November 2000), Bamberg (December 2000), London (24 February 2001), Melbourne (May 2001) and Linz (April 2002). Hardenberger intends to feature the concerto prominently in his repertoire in the coming seasons.



HK Gruber collaborated closely with Håkan Hardenberger on preparing the solo part, and the trumpeter's skills are stretched not only in terms of virtuosity, stamina and the use of multiple mutes, but also through the requirement for the soloist to play cowhorn as well as trumpet and piccolo trumpet (the Proms performance marked Hardenberger’s debut in the role of cowhornist), to play with slides removed, and to sing and play simultaneously.

The concerto offers two aerial views, firstly an imaginary landscape beneath the Northern Lights bearing an inscription from the Emily Dickinson 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 orchestra takes up this opening material as the soloist in cadenza fashion explores the notes available with slideless playing, providing a sonic bridge to the entry of the cowhorn which functions as an ur-brass instrument from a lost age. The title of this movement also has clear significance for Gruber, whose works have increasingly met the challenge of hiding complex compositional procedures in the background, so that the musical surface is freed to be both spontaneous and engaging.

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.

"The new concerto works as both a virtuoso vehicle and as a brilliantly contrasted pair of sound pictures, miniature tone poems almost… when played by someone with Hardenberger’s magisterial command it is a dazzling showpiece…"  The Guardian

"The fearless eccentricity of HK Gruber continues to thrive in his new work Aerial… It is a work in which Hardenberger believes wholeheartedly, and it certainly demands a performer of his phenomenal skill to play it. Perhaps it was significant that he should set out his instruments – cowhorn, piccolo trumpet and ordinary trumpet – on something resembling a conjuror’s stand, for there is a pervasive element of illusion in the music."  The Telegraph

"…a dazzling display of compositional technique...Gruber succeeds in evoking an extraordinarily beautiful sound world… [he] weaves a musical tapestry bristling with wit and invention, punctuated with telling silences and animated by syncopations that suggest a world out of kilter…this world premiere lived fully up to expectation."  The Times

Other concertos by Gruber include a cello concerto written for Yo-Yo Ma, two violin concertos for Ernst Kovacic (recorded on Largo and EMI discs), and the percussion concerto Rough Music which is in the repertoire of Evelyn Glennie.


> Further information on Work: Aerial

Photo: © Sisi Burn

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