Mälkki kept the players intensely focused, and the New Music Group sounded for all the world like one of Europe's top new music ensembles.

Los Angeles Times

Mark Swed

American orchestras don’t play the music of Helmut Lachenmann.

He may, at age 82, be widely hailed as Germany’s most important, and one of Europe’s most influential, composers. He may be studied in progressive American music schools, such as the California Institute of the Arts. New music groups occasionally, very occasionally, tackle his difficult, smaller solo and chamber pieces. An imaginative British or Austrian pianist has been known to include a little something Lachenmann on a recital program on tour in America.

But in general, in this country, the challenging big pieces are thought to be for specialists and best left overseas where they belong. No import tariffs needed.

On Tuesday night, that changed.

In her first Green Umbrella concert, Susanna Mälkki concluded her first season as Los Angeles Philharmonic principle guest conductor with Lachenmann’s “Mouvement (-vor der Erstarrung).” The inexplicable 1984 work cemented his reputation for a dazzling obsession with the essence of instrumental sound so vivid that it no more requires artistic reason for being than does nature in her glory. No logic, no emotional specificity, no sonic narrative.

Whether through overt or distant inspiration, Lachenmann’s confidence in the innate authority of sound could further be heard throughout Mälkki’s unapologetically modernist program that also brought to Walt Disney Concert Hall pieces by two Italian composers and the premiere of a work commissioned for the L.A. Phil New Music Group by Brazilian Marcos Balter.

The program unfolded with Francesca Verunelli’s “Unfolding” for string quartet and electronics, played by the Lyris Quartet, that is all about the instrumental attacks. Violins slash away like the strings in Bernard Herrmann’s music for the shower scene of “Psycho.” After a while, the acoustic aggression, needing ever more emphasis, summons electronic enhancement, and the string quartet metastasizes into a prodigious aural organism.

Balter’s “Things Fall Apart” for a 17-member chamber ensemble, including accordion, has the opposite, but related, feeling. What falls apart here is the sound itself, the resonance of its decay. Anything can set the falling in motion. Woodblocks clack like woodpeckers. Instrumental chords, always different in size, harmony and timbre, decompose, leaving the trace of moldy harmonics, each the equivalent of a rare cheese for meant for hearing not tasting.

Like a nose-to-tail chef, Lachenmann teaches that no part of an instrument should go unused. In Francesco Filidei’s five-minute piano piece played by Joanne Pearce Martin, the keys are feathered, not depressed, in extravagantly adventurous and sensational ways. The sounds are of the keys themselves, part of a resonating body but as if unattached to the hammers and strings. A video screen overhead revealed the startling action.

“Mouvement (-vor der Erstarrung)” might be translated as “Movement (Before Paralysis).” It was written for the French new music group Ensemble Intercontemporain, of which Mälkki is a former music director. When the New York-based Argento Chamber Ensemble gave the U.S. premiere 10 years ago in Manhattan, the piece went unnoticed, but Argento’s following performance of it in L.A. at Monday Evening Concerts was very much noticed. On his only visit to L.A., Lachenmann was treated like the new music hero he is.

The piece is exceedingly tricky to master. There is no seeming reason for its 22-minute series of ever-changing clanging effects that require players to make sounds for every inch of their instruments. At one point, the timpani becomes an ironing board. Wind players remove mouthpieces and tap their tubes.

Something is happening and you don’t know what it is, but you can’t wait for the next thing to come along. The thrill, you soon understand, is the not knowing, and, of course, the inhibition of paralysis. I’ve heard this score many times on recording (there are two fine ones), but it always catches me unaware.

There is only one way to play Lachenmann, and that is with total commitment. Mälkki kept the players intensely focused, and the New Music Group sounded for all the world like one of Europe’s top new music ensembles.

And there is only one way really to experience the visceral potency of Lachenmann’s music, and that is in the flesh. There is a very good reason why Lachenmann is revered as Germany’s greatest living composer. We’re missing the boat.