There was no questioning the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Frankenstein!! on the grounds of adventurous programming.
Its star was the eccentric HK Gruber, a man who once described the banjo as the harpsichord of the proletariat. Here, the cheery, grizzled Austrian both conducted and, later on, sang his own wacky 1970s song-cycle that gave the concert its name.
Frankenstein!! is a huge and lively melting pot, spinning caustic and clever tales of characters from Batman and Robin to James Bond and Miss Dracula, delivered in prickly speech-song.
It certainly entertained but, 40 years on, the political barbs of HC Artmann's verse are sometimes blunted and the energetic Gruber's thick Viennese accent, with full orchestra behind him, meant that eyes too often dropped to the programme booklet's lyrics. This was a fatal distraction. One vocal eruption into snarling, spluttering gobbledygook was relished as an opportunity to relax and enjoy some good old-fashioned avant-garde fun.
The work's toy instruments were very much part of its sound, especially when the eerie hiss of twirling tubes silenced the orchestra in the wake of meeting Artmann's grubby-handed monster.
This last half-hour of the evening explained why the overture had been a plodding 18th century Toy Symphony, a curatorial nicety that made for concert hall tedium. Atonement came later, when Hakan Hardenberger took up the baton for Haydn's lesser-known Philosopher Symphony, with sharp tempi and busy times for two pairs of horns and cors anglais.
Hardenberger, as trumpet soloist, had played some lightweight Gruber on his first visit here 12 years ago but here he thrilled us with the composer's 1999 Aerial, a full-scale, meaty concerto.
How effortlessly he soared over the work's expansive first movement, atop dark, shimmering orchestral textures with the occasional almost bluesy ambience. An exotic interlude calling on cowhorn would take us to the high point of the evening — Hardenberger with piccolo trumpet bopping away on the imaginary dance-floor of Gruber's finale.
What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra – Frankenstein!!
Where: Auckland Town Hall
Reviewer: William Dart