in vain – November 4th, 2012

Aventa to perform ‘masterpiece’ “in vain”

When/where: Sunday, 8 p.m., Phillip T. Young Recital Hall (School of Music, MacLaurin Building, University of Victoria); pre-concert talk at 7: 15 p.m.

Tickets: Adults $20, seniors and students $18.

By Kevin Bazzana, Times Colonist

On Saturday evening, the Aventa Ensemble’s 10th-anniversary season will continue with a program devoted to a single hour-long work: Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain, a radically original, technically challenging instrumental piece that has been performed often around the world since its première in 2000 and has been widely hailed as a masterpiece.

Haas, 59, an Austrian who lives in Basel, Switzerland, became a prolific and prominent composer only in his 40s, but he has impeccable credentials as a modernist – Darmstadt, Donaueschingen, IRCAM, and so on – and is now a major figure in contemporary music, with many high-profile commissions, performances and honours to his credit.

A politically committed artist, Haas composed in vain in response to his despair over the 1999 Austrian elections, which saw the far-right, populist Freedom Party come to prominence. The work is not explicitly programmatic, though some evidence of Haas’s political motivation can perhaps be detected in the music, according to Bill Linwood, Aventa’s artistic director and conductor; for instance, one particularly clangorous passage might be taken to represent a frustrated nation “banging its head against the wall” in protest.

Indeed, this music seems to invite interpretation. It is highly evocative, polymorphic, psychedelic, a kaleidoscope of perpetually shifting textures and colours, seemingly hinting at nocturnal worlds and dark natural forces and things mysterious, irrational, and unearthly. And like much other music by Haas, in vain includes veiled allusions to earlier music; one prominent brass motif, for instance, has been interpreted as a reminiscence of the famous “water music” at the beginning of Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

The soundscape of in vain reflects Haas’s interest in “spectral music,” a contemporary European genre in which compositional materials – most notably “microtones” (intervals smaller than a semitone) – are drawn from the analysis of overtones and other acoustical properties of sound. Interplay of microtones with conventional intervals of the equal-tempered scale is the source of many of the work’s strange, complex harmonies, which yield sonorities that can shimmer and pulsate with eerie beauty but can also pierce and shudder with terrible power – this is music that both whispers and cries.

The Aventa Ensemble, which has a core of 14 players, will expand significantly for this occasion, as in vain is scored for 24 instruments – woodwinds, brass, and strings, plus percussion, harp, piano, and accordion (an electronic keyboard will substitute for the latter on Saturday).

Haas disposes this large ensemble in myriad ways. Sometimes rapidly swirling or fluttering figures create busy counterpoint; sometimes the music seems to undulate, moving in slow waves or loops; sometimes both kinds of music are combined.

Haas’s sonorities in in vain tend toward the opulent and iridescent – he has been justly labelled a Romantic – while structurally the music is often suggestive of circles and spirals, seeming to move forward only to backtrack on itself. (This circularity, the political motivation, not to mention the abrupt, inconclusive ending – do these perhaps explain the work’s curious title?)

Aventa’s performance of in vain will include the lighting effects that Haas very precisely indicates in his score (such effects feature in many of his recent works). Haas calls for different colours of light, for little bursts or “explosions” of light, for spotlighting of individual performers, and for a spectrum of levels ranging from normal concert illumination to total darkness, in which the performers must play from memory and with the conductor invisible.

Haas once compared this lighting to a 25th member of the ensemble – “a silent percussion instrument” – and indeed the lighting effects in in vain, far from ornamental, are integral to the experience of the work in concert. They parallel and thus underscore the harmonic, expressive, and dramatic aspects of the music. They enhance the mesmerizing effect of the instrumental sonorities. And they help to orient the listener by articulating the structural divisions of this long single movement.

This is, admittedly, a work that even its friends call “weird,” but though it is barely a decade old it has already attained the status of a contemporary classic, and Aventa’s performance of it on Saturday should count as a milestone for local new-music fans.

Incidentally, this performance, like all of Aventa’s concerts this season, will be streamed live online as part of the University of Victoria’s recently inaugurated Listen! Live program ( events/live); it will later be archived on Aventa’s own website (

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