Review

The real headliner of the concert: alphorns, blowing a whirlwind of dark emotion through Disney Hall

The headline on the concert tickets and on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s website read “Mirga Conducts Mozart and Haydn.” The usual safe practices of marketing are responsible for that, but really, that was only part of the story — and not even the main story — in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

After intermission Saturday night, the audience encountered the highly unusual sight of five long-necked alphorns lying on the stage, with the orchestra seated behind in a semi-circle. The Switzerland-based members of the lower-cased hornroh modern alphorn quartet had to step over the instruments to get to their places before performing the U.S. premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas’ Concerto Grosso No. 1, an L.A. Phil co-commission. (The world premiere in Munich in 2014 was led by a soon-to-be-familiar figure, Susanna Mälkki, who will be the L.A. Phil’s principal guest conductor starting this fall.)

At the pre-concert talk, Haas, 63, who speaks with the soft accent of his native Austria, tried to prepare the audience for a piece that uses microtones, citing the blues as an accessible example. “Please don’t try to understand my music,” he said. “Music is just sound. Just sit and enjoy.” Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla enthusiastically did the same onstage, calling the piece “a meditation that uses emotion. Let’s enjoy!”

I’m not sure, though, if this piece is meant to be “enjoyed” in the usual definition of the term. Haas grew up in the Austrian Alps, and unlike, say, Mahler, he found nature to be a dark, frightening force. This concerto accordingly paints a somber, disturbing, half-hour soundscape where for the first half of the piece, the alphorns blow long sustained tones hovering around standard pitch. The orchestra often plays menacing repeated notes in shifting tempos and pitches; the effect is more Steve Reich than György Ligeti, to whom Haas is sometimes compared.

The alphorns made sounds close to those of French horns, not too loud but penetrating, sometimes almost painful for me to hear. Eventually, the alphornists got to play upward scales of notes and even conventional harmonies. Mirga led all of this patiently, whipping up a mighty crescendo about three-quarters of the way through in one of those spots that perhaps suggested nature’s dark side. Afterward, alphornists Lukas Briggen, Michael Buttler and Jennifer Tauder accompanied the group’s fourth member, Balthasar Streiff, who played a steerhorn in the dirge-like “Lioba.”

Earlier, pianist Stephen Kovacevich, 76 and nearly a decade removed from a stroke that threatened his career, gave a master class in subtlety by playing the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24 at a volume level that rarely rose above a whisper. The touch was delicate yet clear and firm, every note counted. At first, Mirga’s huge life force overwhelmed the miniaturist, often drowning Kovacevich out in the first movement, but she adjusted later to some extent.

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As a cheerful response to Haas’ moody meditation, Mirga capped the evening with a fluid and excitable performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 31 — nicknamed “Hornsignal” for its innovative use of four horns. This gave a spotlight to the L.A. Phil horn section along with concertmaster Martin Chalifour, cellist Robert deMaine, flutist Denis Bouriakov and in a rare solo turn, bassist Dennis Trembly.

This was only subscription program of the season for Grazintye-Tyla, last year named music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England. Next season, we again will be seeing this exciting young conductor only once.

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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