On HK Gruber’s “Rough Music”

This Friday it will be my enormous pleasure to be soloist in HK Gruber’s “Rough Music” with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Juanjo Mena. I would strongly contest that this work has earned the status of a “classic” in the repertoire, for being both a pivotal work in the lineage of percussion concerti (a relatively early premiere in our history of 1983) but mainly for the exceptional quality of the music.

In three highly contrasting movements, I approach the work as a symphony for percussion(s) and orchestra. The scale of the piece and musical reach invites a broad approach, especially the tantalising and measured way the Finale is so expectantly set up. In a piece full of drama, it is also essential to identify the true peaks in this most vertiginous range, as many moments could easily take on an over-exceptional quality.  What is more, it’s best to have something solid in the tank for the Dadaist meltdown that concludes the work.

A sense of scandal and anarchy are implied already in the title – the “Rough Music” in question a reference to the hounding out of waywardly sinful citizens of a bygone era, in a bizarre and clamorous street-ritual designed to draw attention to those that dared to err. Percussion here, of course, is at the forefront of the accusational activity. Each movement title refracts the concept; “Toberac”, “Shivaree” and “Charivari” all different versions of the same concept, from slightly differing peoples.

In “Toberac”, rhythmic games give way finally to a more exuberant and joyous melodic character, with the mallet instruments in command yet always so gracefully supported in the orchestra. Delicious harmonic pads support marimba figures, wind and brass chirp in with responding elements to the activity and the overall sense is of pleasant yet purposeful adventure. Certain string themes recall perhaps a charming moment for “itzy bitzy jimmy bond” circa “From Russia With Love” or the alpine apres-ski of a pharmaceutical convention in the early 70s. At a time when there’s a craze for all things vintage, here we have retro-chic at its most charming.

“Shvaree” takes us on a very different ride – and to two utterly contrasting worlds. One is a hectic car-chase for drum-set and maniac-orchestra, where competing pulses and poly-rhythms zoom into view only to vanish again as alarmingly as they appeared. Restless and riotous, the music is also, of course, underpinned by an exceptionally devilish bass-line, syncopated and driving us all on. Ending both times in great acrimony, these volatile scenes come face to face with their antithetical side, as a halcyon vibraphone solo peacefully restores calm and resolution. The harmonies tickle certainly, if not actually bite – but it’s close; the Gruber respect for the 12-tone style is here vivid and glorious.

“Charivari” seeks to take a percussion soloist on a complete journey – from exceptionally innocent beginnings to raucous and even violent conclusion. This movement visits France certainly, and the sound-world of Satie is dreamily entered, embraced tenderly and then set down again as eccentricities gradually take hold. Solos for Electric Organ, Bass Guitar, Trombone and Tuned-Cowbells all contribute to the increasingly brazen mischief. And the end defies description, like all good music.

I have had the honour to work closely with Mr Gruber on this music, from our first occasion together in Leipzig in 2001, and I value these experiences most dearly. His wild imagination and inability not to release music at its fullest capacity have been an inspiration to me ever since.

At work on a new opera, he is unable to attend the concert this week, but I will have his intoxicating spirit with me on stage, as will indeed his close colleagues at the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, his dearrrrrrest “Rolls Royce” ensemble!

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