December 9, 2013 5:55 pm

in vain, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London – review

Georg Friedrich Haas’s piece was played with unflinching concentration and finesse

The number of standout events featuring the London Sinfonietta has dwindled in recent years as the number of other ensembles presenting contemporary music has grown, but Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain was a happening in the best Sinfonietta tradition. The 70-minute performance had an iconoclastic air and was unmistakably “hot”: applause at the end was rapturous. But just how much of in vain is substance and how much hot air was hard to tell.

Born in Austria in 1953, Haas has been around for a while – in vain dates from 2000 – so it’s odd that the UK should only be discovering him now. The Royal Opera has commissioned him to write a large-scale work based on John Fosse’s novel Morning and Evening, and in vain was here receiving its London premiere. With an encomium from Simon Rattle in the programme, Haas seems to be enjoying unprecedented exposure, and the Sinfonietta’s performance under Emilio Pomàrico was a virtuoso feat, delivered with unflinching concentration and finesse – even when, in two separate sequences amounting to a total of about 20 minutes, the concert hall was deliberately plunged into pitch darkness.


IN Music

The music during the blackout is necessarily simpler than the rest, and it’s not clear what its purpose is, other than to stimulate our sensory perception. Maybe that’s sufficient justification, but I would have been better persuaded if Haas had invested his material with a greater sense of development over its long time-span, rather than inhabiting such a limited world of admittedly subtle harmonic and textural modulations. He seems to be exploring the same monothematic, faintly hypnotic seam as the minimalists, only with a central European’s understanding of the orchestra and a more sophisticated harmonic palette.

in vain exists within a haze of pointilliste siren sounds, shifting its teasing, tonally based harmonies along a trajectory of long sostenutos, with varying levels of intensity. There are a lot of basic scales, some sexy tenor saxophone glissandos and more than a hint of monotony during the longer of the two blackouts. Haas clearly knows how to use an orchestra. It’s not yet clear whether he has enough to say with it.

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