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HK Gruber
, composer / conductor / chansonnier


Composer, conductor, chansonnier and double bass player HK Gruber is one of the most well-known and well-loved figures in the Austrian contemporary music scene, and yet he remains something of an enigma. Composing in his own highly individual style, he has been labelled ‘new-Romantic’, ‘neo-tonal’, ‘neo-expressionistic’ and ‘neo-Viennese’, but his music remains refreshingly non-doctrinaire - a deceptively simple and darkly ironic idiom which often includes a heavy dose of black humour. Berg, Stravinsky, cabaret and pop music are all influences, but whatever stylistic ingredients he uses in his works, he remains inimitably himself: one of the major talents of post-war music.

Born in Vienna in 1943, Gruber sang with the Vienna Boys Choir as a child and then studied at the Vienna Hochschule für Musik -- double bass with Ludwig Streicher, theory with Hanns Jelinek, and composition with Erwin Ratz and Gottfried von Einem. In 1961 he began playing double bass with the ensemble die reihe (and is currently their Artistic Director) and from 1969 to 1998 he played in the Radio Symphony Orchestra-Vienna.

Gruber’s most popular and beloved composition, the neo-gothic ‘pan-demonium’ Frankenstein!!, was premiered in 1978 by Simon Rattle and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Since then it has travelled across several continents in several languages and in different guises: in concert, in staged performances, on television, and on film. In 1997 the work was released on CD by EMI Classics with the Camerata Academica Salzburg and Franz Welser-Möst, featuring the composer as chansonnier. Among Gruber’s other compositions are two violin concertos written for Ernst Kovacic, a cello concerto written for Yo-Yo Ma (premiered at Tanglewood in 1989), the percussion concerto Rough Music, a trumpet concerto Aerial written for Hakan Hardenberger, commissioned by the BBC Proms and, most recently, Zeitfluren, a 25-minute work for chamber orchestra commissioned jointly by the London Sinfonietta, Europaische Musikmonat Basel, Swedish Chamber Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group. His dramatic works include the apocalyptic opera Gomorra, staged at the Vienna Volksoper in 1993, and Gloria, staged at the 1994 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and the Munich Volkstheater. Gruber’s next major work is a Concerto for Orchestra commissioned by the Vienna Philharmonic, to be premiered in January 2003 conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

As a conductor, Gruber works regularly with groups such as Ensemble Modern, London Sinfonietta, and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. He has also conducted the RSO-Frankfurt, BBC Philharmonic, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Leipzig MDR Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony, Hamburg Philharmonic, Stuttgart Staatsorchester, Iceland Symphony, Berner Symphonie-Orchester, Flemish Radio Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, New York’s Eos Orchestra, Vienna Chamber Orchestra, Klangforum Wien, Camerata Academica Salzburg, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and the RSO-Wien, among others. In 1998/99 and 1999/2000, Jeunesse presented a series at the Vienna Konzerthaus called "Musical Xchanges with HK Gruber" - one-hour concerts of adventurous programmes, introduced by Gruber, aimed at younger audiences.

Conducting highlights of 2002/2003 include the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, Ensemble Modern, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Berliner Staatskappelle, Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, BBC Philharmonic, London Sinfonietta, Orchestre National d’Ille de France, Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Northern Sinfonia and two concerts at the Vienna Konzerthaus to mark his 60th birthday.

He first began performing as a singer/actor with the ‘MOB art and tone ART’ ensemble, a group he co-founded in 1968 with fellow Viennese composers Kurt Schwertsik and
Otto Zykan. Since then he has appeared extensively in this role, most notably in his own work Frankenstein!!, and also in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King. Recent performances of Frankenstein!! have included with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and Seattle Symphony, and in 2002/3 he will perform the work on tour with the Cleveland Orchestra as well as with the Vancouver Symphony and Zurich Chamber Orchestra.

Passionate about the music of Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, he is a frequent interpreter of their works and has recorded Roaring Eisler and Die Dreigroschenoper for BMG, as well as Weill’s Berlin im Licht (Largo), all with Ensemble Modern. He also recorded a disc for BMG of Weill songs arranged for dance band with the Palast Orchester and Max Raabe, which received a Deutschen Schallplattenkritik award in 2001. In 1999/00 Gruber was Artistic Advisor of the South Bank Centre’s Weill Festival, in which he conducted programmes with Ensemble Modern and the London Sinfonietta. Other Weill performances during the Centenary year include Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Aldeburgh, Dessau, Milan, the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, concert performances of Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny at the BBC Proms, Lucerne Festival and Bremen Musikfest, and semi-staged performances of Die Dreigroschenoper with Ensemble Modern in Rome.

As part of the bicentenary tribute to his compatriot Mozart, Gruber devised, scored and acted in Barrie Gavin’s television film Bring me the head of Amadeus. His performance of Frankenstein!! at London’s Almeida Festival was televised by the BBC and he is also featured in documentary films about Eisler (the award-winning Solidarity Song: The Hanns Eisler Story) and von Einem (Ich habe immer Gluck gehabt). In 1993 Gruber and Schwertsik were the focus of the South Bank Centre’s ‘Alternative Vienna’ festival, which showcased composers who have changed the face of Viennese music over the past two decades.

The works of HK Gruber are published by Boosey & Hawkes.

December 2001/825 words

Not to be altered or shortened without permission of Intermusica. Please destroy all previous biographical material.