HK Gruber, of Frankenstein!! fame, is the BBC Philharmonic's new composer/conductor. He tells Alfred Hickling why the orchestra is his new favourite toy
In a recording studio at the BBC Philharmonic's headquarters in Manchester, the orchestra are putting the finishing touches to a new recording of Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera under the direction of the Viennese conductor and composer HK Gruber. A big, bear-like figure, Gruber is one of the world's leading authorities on Weill's music, and he insists on things being done properly – which means a small ensemble of musicians multitasking for all they're worth. At one point, the banjo player is required to lay down his instrument and switch in a moment to woozy Hawaiian guitar.
The take completed, Gruber's rich Viennese growl comes through on the control-room intercom. "How did that sound?" he asks. "Erm – maybe a little drunk?" the producer replies. "Excellent!" Gruber says. "Then we'll move on."
Funereal foxtrots Not many conductors would accept wonky intonation as a virtue, but Gruber – who likes to be addressed by his long-standing nickname, Nali – is an unusual case. His great-great-grandfather, Franz Xaver Gruber, composed the carol Silent Night. Gruber himself wrote Gloria, an opera set in a pigsty; a trumpet concerto, Aerial, that celebrates Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; and an orchestral tone-poem, Dancing in the Dark, commissioned by Simon Rattle for the Vienna Philharmonic, which concludes with a strange funeral foxtrot. But he is best known as the creator of the gothic cantata Frankenstein!!, a "pan-demonium" set to a suite of children's poems in which the orchestra double on toy instruments and whirl plastic hoses above their heads.
Gruber is fond of toys, and his eyes glitter with the excitement of having been presented with the best one yet. Last month, he succeeded James MacMillan as conductor/composer with the BBC Philharmonic (BBCPO). This, he says, "is a dream come true – the chance to have a great orchestra at my disposal without any administrative responsibility. It's as if the BBC Philharmonic came to me and said, 'Can we be your favourite toy?'" He will conduct two concerts in each BBCPO season – though Manchester audiences will have to wait until February to hear him for the first time, when the orchestra will give the British premiere of Busking, a concerto for trumpet, accordion and banjo.
Gruber's relationship with the orchestra began in 2003, when he conducted the British premiere of Dancing in the Dark at the Proms. The BBCPO has since become his preferred recording ensemble, and in 2007 they delivered the definitive account of Frankenstein!! on CD, with Gruber performing his trademark chansonnier role.
The chansonnier is a half-sung, half-spoken narrative part with its roots in Weimar cabaret. Gruber is often called upon to perform the role in dramatic works such as Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and Maxwell Davies's Eight Songs for a Mad King. But it is Frankenstein!! – first performed in 1978 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under a young Simon Rattle – that has become his international calling card.
"Including television and radio, I must have performed Frankenstein!! over 1,000 times," Gruber says. "In fact, I've stopped counting. But I never grow tired of it, because it's always a different experience. I recently did it at the Konzerthaus in Vienna with 500 schoolchildren who had devised their own choreography to go with it. My dream is to be able to do something like that at the Bridgewater Hall."
Caught between the Blue Danube and the avant garde Gruber lives in Vienna, where he was born in 1943 and gained his first musical experience as a member of the celebrated boys' choir. (It was also as a boy treble that he first became known as Nali: "I got that nickname in the dormitory. I think it was because of the way I snored.") He found Vienna to be artistically conservative. "It was a great moment for me when I first discovered Stravinsky, at the age of 12. It made me want to become a composer. But there were few interesting record shops or adventurous concerts. It was rare that you got to hear Debussy or Ravel."
After studying at the Vienna Music School, Gruber established himself as a double-bass player in the Radio Symphony Orchestra, but quickly found himself in a dilemma: he was tired of endless renditions of The Blue Danube, but equally perplexed by the uncompromising experiments of the European avant garde. "I listened to Boulez and Stockhausen and tried to understand it, but the music was a problem for me. It didn't speak my language. I didn't know what kind of music I wanted to create, but I did know that it had to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible."
His solution was to bond with a group of similarly disenchanted leftwing artists to create a radical, music-theatre collective known as MOBart&toneART. Instead of adopting the 12-tone techniques associated with the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, Gruber and his colleagues turned to the jazz- and cabaret-influenced style of Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler. "We were seen as subversive because we composed tonal music," Gruber says. "We believed the banjo to be the harpsichord of the proletariat and the accordion to be the organ of the masses."
His music has maintained the playful, populist element of those early days. Yet his output has developed into a sophisticated synthesis of every Viennese style from Strauss waltzes to serialism. "People still take the attitude that 12-tone composition is horrible and boring," he says. "But, to me, there is no difference between Schoenberg and Brahms."
So what else can audiences expect from Gruber's tenure in Manchester? "It's an opportunity to introduce work I love by composers who are less well known – such as Hanns Eisler, whose Deutsches Symphony is worthy of comparison with Mahler; and Gottfried von Einem, who was the most popular composer in Vienna in the second half of the 20th century but is hardly ever performed today."
Gruber also has a high regard for his predecessor, James MacMillan, who will continue to feature prominently in the BBCPO's repertoire. "I think Jimmy's A Scotch Bestiary is the greatest organ concerto of our time," he says. "I'm planning to take it to Vienna. The organ at the Konzerthaus is a real monster. I can't wait to hear how it sounds in there."
• The BBCPO and Gruber's recording of The Threepenny Opera is broadcast on Radio 3 on 18 October.
"InstantEncore made launching a mobile app seem effortless."