Review: S.F. Symphony ushers in Halloween with a spooky tea party

Review: S.F. Symphony ushers in Halloween with a spooky tea party

Baritone Christopher Purves performs HK Gruber’s “Frankenstein!!,” with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the San Francisco Symphony. Photo: Brittany Hosea-Small

Scariness is always appropriate for the advent of Halloween, but it comes in different varieties. In addition to the obvious sort of chills and thrills that are the province of ghost stories or slasher flicks, there’s the eerie unease that comes when things are just a little bit off.

That brand of spookiness is the province of “Frankenstein!!,” the wonderfully oddball cabaret entertainment by the Austrian composer HK Gruber that served as the headline attraction of the San Francisco Symphony’s concert in Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday, Oct. 27. The piece doesn’t trade in obvious chills, but it gets under your skin in a way that’s both unsettling and hilarious.

Baritone Christopher Purves plays the melodica while performing HK Gruber’s “Frankenstein!!” with the S.F. Symphony. Photo: Brittany Hosea-Small

“Frankenstein!!” is a 30-minute suite of numbers for orchestra with a singing, speaking and caterwauling vocal soloist (Gruber prefers the term “chansonnier”). Written in 1977 and performed frequently ever since, it features a series of verses by the Austrian poet HC Artmann, done in English translation.

The title character is mentioned prominently, but so are a host of other familiar names from the pop-cultural imagination of a midcentury child. Some are straight out of the monster pantheon: a werewolf, a baby vampire, the gender-bending “Miss Dracula.” But also on hand are Batman and Robin, John Wayne, Goldfinger and his pal “Jimmy Bond.”

As for what these Halloween archetypes actually do, your guess is as good as mine. Artmann’s poems are singsong doggerel, cast in short rhyming lines, and they pursue a fantasy logic that is as hard to fully grasp as it is to resist.

Monster races down the stairs
Grubby hands, disheveled hair
So that’s why he never lingers
There’s blood on his dainty fingers

What makes the piece so delightful is Gruber’s musical setting, which matches the text whim for whim. The score is full of instrumental foibles — penny whistles, whirling plastic tubes, a percussionist inflating and popping paper bags as a rhythmic device. At one point, Gruber writes an extended, beautiful duet for kazoo and trombone.

Between the puckish musical effects and the parade of characters trooping through the text, “Frankenstein!!” has the effect of a Halloween tea party for some slightly bloodthirsty dolls. It’s like a Tim Burton remake of “Toy Story.”

Why is scary music so effective? It’s speaking to our subconscious

Baritone Christopher Purves performs HK Gruber’s “Frankenstein!!” with the San Francisco Symphony. Photo: Brittany Hosea-Small

Beneath the childish surface, though, there’s some kind of emotional turmoil that’s all the more effective for being so elusive. The versions of Superman and Lois Lane who are mentioned here aren’t anyone we know; they’re not even Halloween-costume riffs on themselves. The verses date from the tumultuous year 1968, and Gruber claims that the piece boasts a hidden political undercurrent, so that may be what sets the piece so convincingly off-kilter.

Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen and the orchestra played with pointed clarity, but the chief thrill of the performance came from the British baritone Christopher Purves, who delivered the solo part in a burst of droll virtuosity.

The only other time the Symphony has played “Frankenstein!!” was in 2006, when Gruber himself was the soloist and infused the piece with an air of genial menace. Purves, his head largely buried in the score, didn’t quite exhibit the same level of interpretive freedom, but his blend of robust operatic singing and insinuating bedtime-story recitations made a formidable combination.

In one movement, Gruber conjures up a dialogue between a man and a woman, the one deep in the bass register and the other crooning in a wheedling falsetto. Purves rendered it flawlessly.

The evening marked the Symphony’s second consecutive week of roughly Halloween-themed programming, following last week’s death-haunted collection of music by Mussorgsky, Liszt and Berlioz. For the first half, Salonen led the orchestra’s strings in Bernard Herrmann’s music for “Psycho,” and the suite from Bartók’s 1919 ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin.”

Both pieces lean rather heavily on their plots for real scariness, and contemporary audiences are more likely to be conversant with “Psycho” than “Mandarin.” (In Hermann’s piece, the sudden arrival of the shrieking string effects that accompany the film’s famous shower scene prompted chuckles of familiarity from the audience.)

There was little to complain about in the performances, but both works include some long, rather flaccid stretches alongside passages of genuine excitement. It wasn’t until after intermission that the evening — now plunged into chilling darkness — truly came alive.

San Francisco Symphony: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Oct. 28-29. $35-$165. Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F. 415-864-6000.

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