Proms 2016: Lera Auerbach – The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie (Symphony No. 3) (UK Première)

by 5:4

Hot on the heels of one new violin concerto at the Proms, here comes another, this time courtesy of Russian-born, US-based composer Lera Auerbach. But no ordinary concerto, as it’s also subtitled a ‘symphony’, her third, and the involvement of a mixed chorus lends it the quality of both a cantata and a song cycle. Auerbach’s great compatriot Alfred Schnittke also used to mix up idioms in just this way, and aspirations towards his sort of wry take on things (though definitely not his soundworld; more about that in a moment) can be felt in the core of the piece, which goes by the grand title of The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie. The titular minstrel is a role taken on by the solo violin, acting as a peripatetic storyteller, given a literal voice by the chorus. The work’s eight songs are also written by Auerbach, closely modelled on familiar tropes of nonsense rhyme calling to mind Edward Lear, Spike Milligan, Lewis Carroll and even Dr. Seuss.

“Closely modelled” is actually an unreasonably euphemistic way of describing material that’s overtly derivative, and unfortunately this extends to the majority of the music as well, which continually brings, above all, the work of Danny Elfman to mind. In fact, The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie sounds exactly like a putative score for one of Tim Burton’s movies, bearing all the Elfman hallmarks: lopsided but obvious references to folk music, mannerisms from the worlds of operetta and musical, modes of delivery and articulation that veer between extremes of grotesquery and high camp, all within rapid-fire shifts of atmosphere following moment-by-moment narrative twists ever couched inside the safe security of conventional tonality. Of course, nonsense is nonsense, and Auerbach is clearly setting out to do little more than entertain, charm and amuse us. Fair enough, but before we allow ourselves to be too easily beguiled by these humble intentions, isn’t it downright alarming that a composer should set their sights quite so low in terms of originality? This was not, after all, a piece composed for one of the Prom concerts aimed at children—where, incidentally, it would have fitted in perfectly—yet the work barely stretches itself beyond the most mediocre rehashing of gestures and orchestrational clichés that are so hackneyed and well-worn as to be thoroughly depleted of any life or energy. If one even dares to consider that the perceptible shift in tone towards the latter end of the work is a genuine effort towards lyrical depth, then the entire venture becomes unutterably outrageous. For the sake of my blood pressure, i’m sticking with the assumption that that was not her intention.

Place the blame where you like: on the appalling decision by the Proms to commission 40 minutes of this stuff, or on the contemptible decision of Auerbach’s that this kind of superficial, faux-lyrical frippery is in any way acceptable. And call it what you like: a symphony, a concerto, a cantata, a song cycle, whatever – it’s still little more than doggerel masquerading as playful pastiche. Perhaps one shouldn’t be taking this all so seriously; Auerbach clearly didn’t, so why bother? Because it’s hard to be entertained, charmed or amused when you’re also keenly aware that you’re being so blatantly and insultingly manipulated and cheated. What an abject disgrace.

For the sake of completeness, this first UK performance was given by violinist Vadim Gluzman, with countertenor Andrew Watts, the Crouch End Festival Chorus and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Edward Gardner. Don’t hold it against them.


Lera Auerbach - The Infant Minstrel and his Peculiar Menagerie
  • Loved it! (21%, 13 Votes)
  • Liked it (16%, 10 Votes)
  • Meh (13%, 8 Votes)
  • Disliked it (19%, 12 Votes)
  • Hated it! (32%, 20 Votes)

Total Voters: 63

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1. Overture

2. Child-Bard
Do you hear? Do you hear?
Infant Minstrel must be near!
Only kids and young at heart
Hear the call of the Child-Bard.

Strange chimeras and odd folks
From the legends and sidewalks
Follow his wordless tune –
Melodies of tides and the moon.

What is hiding in his fiddle?
Distant memories? Future’s riddle?
Why do these sounds pull my heart?
Wait for me, O Child-Bard!

3. Interlude (Promenade I)

4. Lament for a Common Corporant
I know a Common Corporant
Who likes to rant, to rant, to rant!
He rants on all day long!
(And it’s a very boring song.)

He rants about his day at work,
He rants about his eggs and pork,
He rants about his lazy wife,
He rants about his busy life.

He rants about all other ants,
He rants about their empty rants,
And while others sing and dance
He clears invisible crumbs.

Oh, poor Common Corporate Ant,
So busy he is with his constant rant –
He doesn’t remember to love or chant,
He forgot he was not born an ant!

He forgot his childhood dreams,
He forgot he has wings, not just limbs!
He forgot he still has free will
(And it doesn’t come in a pill!)

He forgot he could fly any time!
(Without the drugs or wine.)
Oh, poor Common Corporant
Who likes to rant, to rant, to rant!

5. Who is Dickery Dare?
Dickery, dickery, dare.
I once saw a Panda Bear.
He knocked on the door
Of a hardware store.
He was very polite,
Yet caused quite a fright!
Dickery, dickery, dare.

– Oh poor Panda Bear!
But who is that Dickery Dare?

– The Dare who went dickery, of course!
– Or the Dickery on a dare!

Dickery, dickery, dare.
The pig flew up in the air.
He sat on the cloud
and cheered the crowd!
Dickery, dickery, dare.

– No, the pig couldn’t sit on the cloud!
Cloud is … gas, wait …
Cloud … is water, no!
Oh yes: cloud is air!
Not suitable for a chair!
Yes, I mean – no! Even on a dare –
It’s not suitable for a chair!

– Dickery, dickery, dare!
If the pig can fly – he can also sit
On pretty much anything!
Fair and square!

(And here is the end of the affair
with Flickery Dickery Dare.)

6. Interlude (Promenade 2)
The Panda Bear and the Flying Pig
Dancing a gigue on the town’s square,
While Infant Minstrel is filling the air
With his music – refined and rare.
Fiddely, giddely, flair!
Sideshow is the best of the fair:
Some very odd folks
Tell a story that rocks
While my head is due for repair!
(I could also use some software.
If only I could restart,
I would be reborn very smart
With fiddely giddely flair!)
Goodbye, Dicky-Dickery Dare.

7. Who Plays My Drum?
I had a little husband,
No bigger than my thumb.
I have him tiny presents
And played for him my drum.

He was so very pretty,
I wanted to give him a hug,
But accidentally squished him
When he hid under the rug.

So, I play my drum.
So, I drink my rum.
So, I suck my thumb.

And all day long and all night long
I played for hum my drum.

He covered his ears in vain –
My drumming was too loud.
He tried to complain,
But it was lame
As he was always too proud.

Then he tried to hide
To run away from me –
That made me very angry,
So I drowned hum in my tea.

Yes, I found him!
Yes, I caught him!
Yes, I ignored his plea!
I drowned him
In my Milky Oolong
Delicious cup of tea!

I was soon remorseful, of course.
And to his grave brought a beautiful rose.
He is waiting for me in heaven,
While I practice 24/7:
Around the clock from midnight to midnight
I drum on my drum, hoping to make it all right.
(I am certain our post-mortem future is bright!)

So, I play my drum.
So, I drink my rum.
So, I suck my thumb.

I had a little husband,
No bigger than my thumb.
Didn’t know what to call him,
So I called him Donald Trump.

He was so very cute in his bossy suit!
But then he became increasingly rude.
He would bite me and hide my keys,
He would snarl at me, bully and tease.

I wasn’t at all pleased!
Until one day I sneezed …
And somehow he disappeared.
The man whom I soooo feared …
He is nowhere to be found!
Have you seen him around?

I play my drum.

Who plays my drum?

I play whose drum?

Trump! Trump!

I play, but it is
No longer fun …
I break the sticks
And smash the drum!

But still I hear
Loud and clear:

8. Guacamole Treatment
There was once a man
With such a long nose
That his wife had mistaken it
For a garden hose.

When she started watering plants
His nose turned red and tense.
Then he sneezed, as he was allergic to pollen,
With tears in his eyes and his throat swollen.

‘Oh my darling, I am so very sorry!
I am going to get the best guacamole
To make for you a cold green compress –
The best-known treatment for a nose in distress!’

Cried his wife and cut for him her best rose.
‘Pretty rose for your suffering nose!
– Ooops! I did it again: I forgot –
You’re allergic to all pretty things, poor land!

The man sat sadly
In a defeated pose
While his wife applied
Guacamole to his nose.

9. Moon-Rider
– Moon-Rider, Moon-Rider, fly through the night,
Light up the starts with fire and might!
Veil all troubles, so we may
Dream our dreams, pray and play.

Moon-Rider’s panther – an ancient beast
Scares nightmares from entering dreams.
Protected, in innocence, children can sleep,
While the guilty restlessly weep.

– Moon-Rider, Moon-Rider, help me tonight!
My thoughts are scattered from troubles of heart.
Take me along in your flight through the dark –
Away from my thoughts and their howling bark!

Moon-Rider answers: ‘Come along!
Find the silence that is your own –
It is your safety, your true voice, your home.
Do not despair: you are never alone.

Come, my child, hear my voice:
In the darkest of hours you may still rejoice.
Breathe and remember: each breath is your life,
The sky is within you. Breathe deeply – and dive!’

10. Child-Wanderer
Infant Minstrel’s playing fast.
Infant Minstrel’s playing slow.
Infant Minstrel shall never grow.
Yet he’s a thousand years old –
On his ears grows mould.

– Child-Wandered, be my guide
Through all times – light or hard –
Into the wondrous hidden land,
Where tomorrow shall never end.

Play your fiddle, sing your song,
Tell me what is right and wrong,
Sing me of your strange adventures,
Keep your bow, your wings, your dentures.

Infant Minstrel’s playing high,
Infant Minstrel’s playing low –
In the sun and in the snow.
One can feel his music near –
In the smile, in the tear.

Close your eyes and listen within –
You shall find his violin.
He shall lead you to his friends –
Odd, peculiar specimens.
You can learn from them a great deal …
– Infant Minstrel, are you real?

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Daniel Childers

One day, you shall run out of new.

You will claim it is because no composers remain that are adventurous enough for your tastes. You will claim massive boundless regions of untapped potential waiting just beyond the horizon, a mere scraping of piano strings or a wailing of sine waves away from being unveiled.

And yet, never will it be enough. Because the joy of the craft will be forgotten to you, so overly intellectualized to the point of Prokofiev’s wit becoming banal, Bolcom’s thrilling syncopation becomes ash in your mouth. Music becomes nothing more than a celebration of your capacity to be above it all.

I appreciate you recording the content of the proms, that we may render our own judgement over these pieces, but I cannot say I envy you.

Richard Bell

Thank you for a perceptive review, but – cutting edge or not – the lively performance, sandwiched between the gentler delights of Mother Goose and La Mer, made for an enjoyable Prom. It’s La Mer that’s still swirling around in my mind but I’d definitely give Peculiar Menagerie another go. I think there was an element of sharp comment amongst all the charm and fun.

Chris L

Listening to this, I quickly placed it within the fantastical/dreamlike tradition exemplified by David del Tredici’s An Alice Symphony, a piece cited approvingly by Philip Clark in A New Tonality. Whether a piece’s belonging to this tradition is a good thing is, of course, a matter of taste…and, judging by the votes cast above, Simon, the various tastes of your readership on this point differ sharply!

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