Live: Vienna Vegetable Orchestra @ Proctors, 11/3/10

After watching two lovely, elegantly dressed, young classical harpists perform the Metallica songbook in the cozy confines of the Judge’s Inn in Troy back in September, I was pretty sure that Harptallica had wrapped up this year’s Nippertown trophy for Best Novelty Concert of 2010. (Read review here.)

But then along came the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra

Dressed all in black, the co-ed, 10-member ensemble made their American debut in front of a small but oh-so-curious crowd at the Mainstage at Proctors performing on an array of musical instruments they created themselves from a variety of vegetables.

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Finger holes were carved into hollowed-out cucumbers to create flutes. Eggplants were sliced to create clappers. And a gigantic pumpkin was utilized as a bass drum, banged on with carrots as drumsticks.

“By the way,” one member of the orchestra told the assembled crowd, “your pumpkins are really amazing.”

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra – and they are indeed from Vienna – is a seasonal orchestra, and their premiere American tour to just a handful of cities was timed to coincide with the harvest season.

“Most of our instruments are fresh,” explained another member. And, yes, the orchestra must make all of their instruments fresh for each performance because – well, let’s just say that a rutabaga doesn’t age as gracefully as a Stradivarius.

And believe it or not, their performance wasn’t a joke. The members of VVO take their music quite seriously, actually. Most of their instrumental vegetation music is original (apparently, Beethoven’s symphonic oeuvre rarely included parts for celery violin or cucumberphone), and it’s fascinating, too.

With obvious influences that lept from Indonesian gamelan music to loud, dense noise-rock, from the South American samba to spaghetti western soundtrack music, VVO managed to keep the crowd’s attention with a surprising range of musical styles.

There was the quartet featuring four heads of lettuce with contact microphones implanted in them, which made a cacauphonous but captivating white noise assault as the musicians rubbed, peeled off leaves and eventually began smashing the lettuce heads against the monitor speakers and the stage floor. Quite a messy one, that was.

More subtle was “Rain,” in which a vinyl album of vegetable sounds was played on a turntable with a green bean utilized as a stylus instead of a diamond needle.

And, yes, they tossed in a few “cover” tunes, too. there was a strangely effective rendition of Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity,” as well as an interpretation of Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring,” which closed the show. OK, so maybe Stravinsky might not have recognized the performance as his composition, but I’m certain that he would have loved listening to it nonetheless.

Following the funky encore of “Greenhouse” (“‘Green’ because we play it with vegetables, and ‘house’ because it’s house music,” explained one of the musicians), the members of VVO gathered on the lip of the stage and gave away most of the instruments that they’d been playing for the past hour, as well as many vegetables that they didn’t use in the performance. They also ladled out bowls of – what else? – vegetable soup to the audience members.

Excerpt from Geraldine Freeman’s review at The Daily Gazette: “What was interesting about all this was that the concert was an exploration into the concept of sound. Every vegetable had its own quality. Depending on whether it was slapped, ripped, pounded or blown through, the result could be put into a framework that when coupled with rhythm created a kind of song. The group’s concept is a testament to human ingenuity.”

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