Argento Chamber Ensemble: Michel Galante led the orchestra in “In Vain” at the Miller Theater. Photo by Jennifer Taylor.
Growls and Harps, in the Dark
February 9, 2009 | The New York Times
As waves of opulently strange, beautiful sounds flooded the Miller Theater on Friday evening during the American premiere of “In Vain,” it often seemed that supernatural forces were at work. Michel Galante led the Argento Chamber Ensemble in a tour de force performance of this hourlong masterpiece by the Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas, with musicians and audience sometimes submerged in total darkness.
Mr. Haas, who has attended courses in Darmstadt, Germany, and at Ircam (the research institute in Paris dedicated to computer and electronic music), has been influenced by spectralism, a style that emphasizes timbre and uses the overtones created by a particular note to produce intriguing sonorities. The alluring soundscapes of “In Vain,” which received its premiere in Cologne, Germany, in 2000 (performed here as part of the Composer Portraits series), stem from Mr. Haas’s use of microtones and different tuning systems.
At the beginning of the work, after the pink-lighted backdrop turned blue, descending scales cascaded like hundreds of iridescent sonic waterfalls, the undulating waves of sound swelling, then melting into strange growls as the theater was immersed in darkness. The delicate strains of a harp rose above the subdued murmur as the darkness receded.
The downward motifs, played against a chordal background, recurred often throughout “In Vain,” varying from manic, glistening scales with tritone intervals to heavy descents that evoked a drunkard plodding despondently down a flight of stairs.
Striking microtonal brass chorales penetrated Pendereckian string clusters, whose eerie sonorities were intensified by an accordion. The music hovered between consonance and dissonance, swelling and contracting to fever-pitch intensity and subdued murmurings. It was often hard to believe that these otherworldly sounds were coming from acoustic, not electronic, instruments.
For long stretches the ensemble performed from memory in the dark, a remarkable feat. During one unlighted excerpt it seemed as if a loud menagerie of fantastical beasts were prowling onstage. Strobe lights flickered for milliseconds, revealing ghoulish glimpses of the musicians.
At one point a brief echo of Steve Reichian percussion heralded a change of character in the music. The overall effect of “In Vain” was in fact similar to that of Mr. Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians.” The works apply different musical aesthetics — “In Vain” seducing the listener with psychedelic timbres instead of rhythmic patterns — to similarly narcotic effect.
The kaleidoscopic, throbbing tapestry built to an almost overwhelming intensity toward the end, with brief fragments from the harp piercing the darkness like invisible arrows. The euphoria finally faded into a weary stillness as the lights rose slowly.