With Georg Friedrich Haas in Matera

With Georg Friedrich Haas in Matera

My most beautiful concert experience: with G.F. Haas in Matera

Six made-to-order concerts at six sites in a historic city: in September 2019 Georg Friedrich Haas was in the midst of an extraordinary musical event. Dr. Silke Hilger, General Manager of Ricordi Berlin, accompanied the composer to Italy and describes her impressions in this travel report.

Matera (in the southeast of Italy) is well worth the journey. One of Europe’s oldest cities, it has understandably been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a European Capital of Culture for 2019. When a visit to Matera is coupled with a five-and-a-half hour concert event that winds through the whole town, it becomes something unforgettable and my most beautiful concert experience.

Getting there was unexpectedly easy: a flight to Bari, an hour bus ride and one is in the breathtaking setting of the old town, whose little houses (known as sassi), hewn out of the rock as if by a cubist, and alleyways are picturesque beyond words. Good shoes and fit condition are required for wandering around them, over hundreds of uneven steps and stones into one new nook and square after another, disclosing constantly changing views down into the valley and across to adjacent caves inhabited for thousands of years. Everything here is untouched; the restaurants and hotels blend almost invisibly into the historic setting. Apart from the street vendors of little sassi replicas, there is no commerce.

The visionary artistic director of LAMS (Laboratorio Arte Musica e Spettacolo) Giovanni Pompeo knew exactly what sort of event could honour his city Matera in 2019 when he invited Georg Friedrich Haas to create a body of work reflecting the locale’s uniqueness. After a visit to inspect the site last year, during which Haas got to know the city, with all its facets and diverse localities, a concept was born in the course of a long creative process: six concerts at six different iconic venues, to be seen, heard and enjoyed over five and a half hours.

It begins at 6.30 pm.

Station 1: Piazzetta Pascoli, the square in front of Palazzo Lafranchi (the art museum)


A wind band – of the kind so widespread and beloved in southern Italy – takes up its place, plays a few bars, then continues at a quick tempo in the direction of Piazza San Giovanni and back again while playing a so-called ascending or descending march. Not at all dissonant because based in part on Gesualdo, but not masculine or military either. The banda wends its way through the crowded city all evening with this music.

Picture of a marching wind band during the day
Piazzetta Pascoli

Station 2: In Palazzo Lafranchi


In the adjoining rooms of the art museum, which exhibits paintings and sculpture by local artists, individual musicians are positioned: a bassoon, a clarinet, an accordion, three horns, two sousaphones, a viola (in the Arcadian, greenery-filled inner courtyard) and six percussionists (in a subterranean, not easily accessible cave). The spectators/listeners stroll through the various rooms and garden, go down the deep steps into the cave and back up again, accompanied by the constant strains of the individual instruments, which blend in the passages between room, at first vaguely, then more so, until distinct sounds are heard once again. Similarly, there is an intermingling of the auditory and the visual. The museum has a window in which the picturesque town, now suffused by the evening darkness, is framed like a painting. For two hours, the musicians play from a reservoir of music specially composed for them, so that no minute sounds like any other.

Picture of cave at Palazzo Lafranchi
Palazzo Lafranchi

Station 3 (way station): in via Cappelluti


Haas has written a special funeral march for the commemoration day of the eight Materan victims of National Socialism, performed by the banda at the exact site where the crime was committed. Passers-by, deeply moved, stay to listen to this unexpected demonstration of mourning and remembrance.

Picture of Matera, Italy
View at Matera

Station 4: Hypogeum of San Agostino


Three microtonally tuned pianos with six pianists. Fierce percussive clusters in the low registers – so it begins. The vibrations float in the space and yield so many resonances that one no longer is thinking about the pianos producing them. One’s head is in a whirl that verges on the pain threshold. For the players, too, who need good arm muscles. After a while peace returns, and delicate arpeggios played in the upper registers lose their normally slightly angelic stereotype in the microtonal tuning and create a contrast with the rhythmic clusters that come in later.

Picture of pianists playing at Hypogeum of San Agostino
Hypogeum of San Agostino

Station 5: The adjacent Church of San Agostino


String octet with organ in the semi-darkness. The strings are arranged in a semi-circle in front of the altar; on the gallery above is the organ, which interjects chords into the string carpet at regular intervals, each time lending it a new quality. A meditative atmostphere in this sacred space, though attention and alertness are demanded every second.

Picture of a string quartet playing at the Church of San Agostino
Church of San Agostino

Station 6: Casa Cava


A small modern concert hall embedded in one of the old caves. The Eleventh String Quartet (for one violin, one viola and two cellos) is played in complete darkness. All the lights go out, which admittedly makes one a bit queasy. The soft microtonal string sounds quickly bring an easing of tension and total engagement with the new sound-world. A challenge for the players as well, who cannot be praised enough afterward. After this our hearing experience is not what it was before.

Casa Cava

It ends at midnight

Nothing but joy and laughter until early morning, thanks to the successful evening, before everyday life resumes the next day. A great conceptual and logistical achievement by Giovanni Pompeo, the artistic director, and the musicians of the Orchestra of Matera and Basilicata. New friendships have been formed, new artistic experiences gathered, future plans forged.

The memories will linger for ever.

NB: The motto “Don’t try this at home” doesn’t apply here.

Text: Dr. Silke Hilger

Read the interview with Giovanni Pompeo, artistic director of LAMS and the project’s mastermind, on working alongside Georg Friedrich Haas.

Photos: LAMS (Piazzetta Pascoli, Palazzo Lafranchi, Hypogeum of San Agostino, Church of San Agostino, Casa Cava), Dr. Silke Hilger (view of Matera)