Like Alphorns? How About Four of Them?

United StatesUnited States Mozart, G.F. Haas, Haydn: Stephen Kovacevich (piano), honroh modern alphorn quartet, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 2.4.2017. (LV)

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K.491

Georg Friedrich Haas – Concerto Grosso No.1 for four alphorns and orchestra

Haydn – Symphony No.31, ‘Hornsignal’

In the wake of media coverage confirming her status as a front-runner in the sweepstakes to be the first woman superstar conductor, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla came to town to lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She did her cheerful best in Mozart, Haydn and Georg Friedrich Haas – a program that only alphornists playing at very high altitudes could have devised. Unintentionally, it represented a missed opportunity for the Philharmonic to do something probably never done before in the history of classical music.

The entire first half was occupied by Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.24, in a valedictory performance by Stephen Kovacevich. It was almost entirely a dialogue between an alert, lithe orchestra – particularly the woodwinds – and a reflective, episodic piano, and held the audience in thrall. After Kovacevich’s encore, the ‘Sarabande’ from Bach’s Fourth Partita BWV.828, with golden introspection and almost painful beauty, roars went up around the hall.

The second half veered off into uncharted territory with Haas’s brand new Concerto Grosso for four Swiss alphorns – those extraordinary instruments that look like elongated, 12-foot Meerschaum pipes. The pipes were played by the Basel-based, typographically cool, honroh modern alphorn quartet (Balthasar Streiff, Michael Büttler, Jennifer Tauder, Lukas Briggen) and a very large orchestra, including seven French horns, three trombones, and tuba. A crew of serious-looking dudes manned the percussion battery, spanning the entire back of the stage: timpani, bass drum, snare drum, slit drum, wood-plate drum, cymbals, marimba, gongs, tom-tom, and woodblock.

I can understand the apparent motivation of the commissioning partners and Janis McEldowney, who provided “generous support” for Haas to pay homage to the alphorn. A few years ago, I was lost in the Alps on a train heading in the right direction but at the wrong speed, and spent a pleasant half-hour with a sweet American university couple, who spent their summers traveling from one Swiss folk-music festival to another. They loved the fiddle music, and of course the alphorns, about which we all laughed as we chugged merrily along through the Swiss countryside, where alphorns were probably lurking in every garage.

Haas’s new concerto evoked those memories with every alphorn utterance;  otherwise, though the orchestra made some very loud, impressive, colorful, and moody sounds, after a while I wished the charming instruments would go away.

Judging from the enthusiastic reception, however, the audience felt otherwise. The encore they demanded delighted them even more, as Streiff strode downstage with his stubby Swiss steer horn and wailed on it like a shofar, backed by his colleagues.

The concert ended with Haydn’s ‘Hornsignal’ Symphony using four French horns, and the missed opportunity, of course, was to perform it with alphorns instead. After all, in the right settings, like Alpine Valleys and halls with lots of reverb, these instruments are extraordinary musical creatures. It is possible to play them with fixed notes like other instruments, but what makes their sound so addicting is their natural inclination to wander off pitch, as if they had drifted into a parallel harmonic universe where nothing quite fits – as if the musicians were smoking enormous pipes with weed.

You can hear the alphorn’s combination of qualities most exhilaratingly in its natural habitat – as in the Ricola cough drop commercials – or in the concertos of the Swiss composer Jean Daetwyler. And alphorns are now available throughout the digital world, so finding them is no longer the problem is once was.

After being a sympathetic foil to Kovacevich in the Mozart, and bowing before mountain grandeur in the Haas, Gražinytė-Tyla played the Haydn with an appropriate and refreshingly large complement of 32 strings, keeping the many moving parts sorted out seamlessly.

As she did all through the concert, Gražinytė-Tyla looked balletic and happy – perhaps more meditative in the Haas, which did stretch on for 30 minutes, and more exuberant in the Haydn and Mozart. She has a wonderful way of sweeping with one arm or the other, knees bent and momentarily swaying, as if her arm were making waves through water or sand.

In the Haydn, the French horns thrilled with gently martial virtuosity in their high-flying solo parts. Gorgeous riffs by Philharmonic principals – Martin Chalifour, Robert deMaine, Dennis Trembly, Denis Bouriakov, Anne Marie Gabriele, and Shawn Mouser – were adorned with those curious faux original-instrument ornaments that modern-instrument Philharmonic musicians love to play.

Even double-bassist Trembly, hardly trembling at all before the upper-register passages demanded by Haydn’s outlandish sense of humor, added a few kittenish trills and turns here and there.

Laurence Vittes

2 thoughts on “Like Alphorns? How About Four of Them?”

  1. Good to read the Haas has had an LAPO outing and the audience enjoyed it. It’s not a new piece though – reviewed 24.9.14 in this publication after a performance at the Berlin Musikfest by the much lamented SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden & Freiburg under François-Xavier Roth (now installed as Principal Guest Conductor with the London Symphony). It was premiered in Munich 6 months earlier by BRSO under Susanna Mälkki.


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