Music review: Georg Friedrich Haas’ Green Umbrella premiere

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Georg Friedrich Haas -- whose terrifying Third String Quartet was performed in a pitch black theater in Pasadena last year and required the safeguard of a fire marshal -- is back. On Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group gave the U.S. premiere of his latest work, “chants oubliés,” in Walt Disney Concert Hall, as part of its first Green Umbrella concert this season.


Haas is an astonishing composer and the new piece for opposing string and wind ensembles is a mind-bending sonic event. It was also an evening in which Dutch conductor Otto Tausk made his L.A. Phil debut in a spellbinding program that began with a recent piece by a young Canadian composer, Zosha Di Castri. In between, there were two parts of Morton Feldman’s intimate, still, quiet, erotic ‘The Viola in My Life,’ and Toru Takemitsu’s prescient (this night before the storm) ‘Rain Coming.’

One of the most talked about composers in Europe -– and featured at the Salzburg Festival in his native Austria this summer -– Haas has only recently been getting appropriate attention in the United States.

New York new music ensembles have, of late, become entranced with his indelibly haunting concepts of sound and light and space. The Cleveland Orchestra daringly premiered a Haas orchestral work five years ago. Mostly, though, big American musical institutions are scared off by a composer who has little regard for auditory comfort zones.

Haas, however, noted at a pre-concert talk Tuesday that Southern California happens to be a comfortable fit for him. He is devoted to microtones, which help make his music captivatingly weird and which are also part of our heritage. He mentioned the late James Tenney, who spent an important part of his career at CalArts, as a major influence.

Another aspect of his work that makes Haas uniquely apt for these parts is that he composes with sound and light. His quartet “In the Dark” isn’t an anomaly. He has written concerti for instruments and light. Someone should hook him up with James Turrell pronto. Taking its inspiration from Liszt’s late, somber (you might say dark) works, ‘chants oubliés’ (Forgotten Songs) doesn’t play around much with the Disney space (the piece is a co-commission between the L.A. Phil and a chamber orchestra in Munich, Germany, where it was first performed). But the wind and string groups were effectively placed in their own circular pools of light on opposite sides of the stage. And when the strings vibrated in sympathetic, purely tuned close intervals, when a pair of trombones intoned a low drone that might well have come from realms unknown, it was possible to start seeing things.

Light and sound are wave forms taken in by sense organs and interpreted by the brain. It is possible to confuse the brain, and that is what Haas does through a combination of new music techniques, including investigating the spectral effects of the overtone series the way some French composers like to do with their computers.

Haas’ presence was enough to make this Green Umbrella program, which was curated by L.A. Phil creative chair John Adams, noteworthy, especially so since Adams does not have a cozy relationship with the spectral school. Adams also used the evening to promote Di Castri, who was born in 1985. He commissioned an orchestra piece from her for the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz last summer. Tuesday’s short quintet ‘La forma dello spazio’ was individual and exciting.

The title (‘The Form of Space’) is taken from an Italo Calvino story. Like Haas, it, too, is spatial if less space-agey. Violin, piano and cello sat on stage (widely separated). Flute and clarinet were placed in the back of the auditorium. The pianist, Joanne Pearce Martin, had bells on her feet. Tausk conducted a chamber ensemble with gigantic gestures, but scintillating points of sound seemed precise.

Feldman’s “The Viola in My Life” is a love letter to the viola (and perhaps a violist), and, at the same time, music by an experimental, famously abstract and understated Jewish New York composer coming to terms with the German music and Germany. Out of nothing, he reveals a hint of a melody with a kind of Hebraic character. Feldman once told me that Berlin, where he composed the score in 1970 and 1971, was to blame.

Only the first two of the four parts were played Tuesday, which meant that the full implications of some of Feldman’s most caressing music were not fully realized. But principal violist Carrie Dennis -- who was restrained to producing only single, swelling notes for almost 10 minutes in the first part -- was extraordinary in her striking intensity and stirring tone.

Tausk conducted Dennis and a small chamber ensemble with supple, sensitive restraint. That restraint was not so present in Takemitsu’s wonderfully poetic “Rain Coming.” But rain came anyway.

[For the record, 2:58 p.m. Oct 5: An earlier version of this review said in the next to last paragraph that the concert included only one of the four parts of Morton Feldman’s ‘The Viola in My Life.’ The first two parts were performed.]


Music review: Georg Friedrich Haas’ revelatory romp in the dark

Critic’s Notebook: Adventurous fare missing at Cabrillo

Music review: Gustavo Dudamel conducts Benzecry and Berlioz

-- Mark Swed

Photos, from top: Otto Tausk conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group in the premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas’ ‘chants oubliés’; Carrie Dennis. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Philharmonic.