An evening with H K Gruber is unlike most concerts. Gruber, whose musical career began in the Vienna Boys Choir, has moved a long way since then, but he remains steeped in a Germanic heritage encompassing Weimar Republic cabaret, nasty tales and songs to scare children, and the fierce energy of the great classical conductors. He composes, conducts, sings and plays a variety of odd and customised instruments, including an artfully prepared plastic penny whistle and toy saxophone.
Northern Sinfonia responded with alacrity and bemusement to Gruber's material. He reciprocated with demonstrative and generous encouragement, particularly to the young clarinettist Christopher Richards, whose expressive playing gave John Adams's Gnarly Buttons the feeling and depth of a true journey.
Gruber's reverence for Kurt Weill and Weimar-era radicalism permeated his singing of Weill's "Berlin im Licht" and his conducting of themes from The Threepenny Opera. Northern Sinfonia sounded at times just a touch too Englishly polite, but they found their nerve, hitting the right tone and pace.
The conductor's own composition on the programme, a "pandemonium for singer and orchestra" entitled Frankenstein!!, draws on the Grimms, Struwwelpeter, and who knows what gothic recesses of his imagination. Gruber declaims, sings, growls, croons, shouts, squeaks, rasps, whispers and roars his way through a series of nasty rhymes and scary sketches loosely themed around monsters. Gruber's little scenes belong in a world of dark, strange fantasy inhabited perhaps by Edward Gorey, Hans Christian Andersen, Roald Dahl and assorted Teutonic and Transylvanian grotesqueries. His performance was mesmerising, not just for his vocal contortions and the grrrinding rrrasp of excessively rolled "r" sounds, but also his multi-skilling as singer, conductor and instrumentalist. Even while facing the audience to sing, chant or growl out the words, his hand and body movements led the orchestra, whom he'd issued with some novel equipment. At one point, several of them stood solemnly whirling brightly coloured lengths of corrugated plastic hose to produce a hollow, windy tone. Some players seemed more at ease with this than others, but that was part of the fun.
Anyone who hasn't encountered Gruber should try one of his shows, whether for pure entertainment or for a challenging encounter with our preconceptions of German and central European culture.
Benny Ross, Local government revenues officer, Newcastle upon Tyne