May 12, 2014 6:11 pm

Two Haas premieres, City Halls, Glasgow – review

The Austrian composer’s work was the exhilarating highlight of the BBCSSO’s Tectonics festival
Marcus Weiss (left) and Ilan Volkov at City Halls, Glasgow

Marcus Weiss (left) and Ilan Volkov at City Halls, Glasgow

To have one out-and-out success in the unpredictable world of new music is an achievement. To have two by the same composer in the same evening is a coup. That is exactly what happened at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s Tectonics festival, a weekend of new and experimental music curated by Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov. By their very nature such events produce uneven results, and Tectonics had its share of pretentious guff masquerading as the avant-garde. But it is exhilarating to be part of an event that seeks to extend boundaries, and somehow consoling that, amid all the charges of BBC populism, Britain’s beacon of broadcasting is still doing what any publicly funded organisation should be doing: taking the risks commercial promoters cannot afford.

That the two most significant premieres at Saturday’s orchestral concert came from the hand of Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas (born 1953) was surely no coincidence, for few of his contemporaries can match him for subtlety and sophistication. Haas’s Tectonics premieres, the Concerto Grosso No 2 and Saxophone Concerto (both BBC commissions), demonstrated a gift for connecting with an audience through an idiom at once personal, traditional and contemporary.

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Like in vain, the work that established Haas’s reputation more than a decade ago, both conjure a mirage of meticulously plotted harmonic and textural modulations, while demonstrating much greater concision and focus. In the 18-minute Concerto Grosso, the ear is teased and stimulated by a constantly developing/enveloping skein of siren sounds that heave and breathe with varying degrees of intensity – one minute echoing Wagner in the use of a deep pedal, the next summoning Brahms in a snatch of pounding chords.

By playing the 25-minute Saxophone Concerto in such a selfless, unshowy way, Marcus Weiss underlined the moody, nocturnal character of the solo part, which charts a lyrical path through a heat-haze of shimmering, simmering, wailing, whirring orchestration – a modern masterwork. Either piece would go down well in a “traditional” symphony concert. Whether Haas can extend and vary his idiom enough to include dramatic music – an opera has been commissioned for Covent Garden – remains to be seen.


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