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Pieces falling into place for Musica Angelica

With a tour and recordings lined up, the period instrument group is raising its profile.

March 17, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

These are heady days for the once-humble Los Angeles period instrument group Musica Angelica. Tonight in Mexico City, the 14-year-old ensemble is set to begin its first North American and European tour. On Tuesday, it will present the ambitious piece it's touring, Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," at First United Methodist in Pasadena.

The group also recently signed a contract for four recordings to be released by the German-based New Classical Adventure label. Its first project, Handel's oratorio "Acis and Galatea," was recorded here in early February and is expected to come out in the fall.

The spark plug who's ignited all this activity is Music Director Martin Haselbock, an affable 51-year-old Austrian organist, conductor and composer who likes to talk to the audience before concerts and give credit where credit is due.

He routinely singles out both the members of the ensemble and his talented predecessor, Michael Eagan, who died in 2004. A lute player, Eagan co-founded the Musica Angelica in 1993 with viola da gamba player Mark Chatfield, who died in 1998. Haselbock dedicated his first concert as music director -- in October 2005 -- to Eagan.

Still, when Haselbock took over, the group had only 80 subscribers. Today, that number has risen to more than 300. And although the ensemble operates on a budget of just over $600,000 from foundation, box-office and private support, no less a star than soprano Elizabeth Futral has appeared with it.

"At the beginning, I was just a guest conductor," Haselbock said in a recent phone interview from Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain, where he was leading the Orquesta Sinfonica de Tenerife prior to the Musica Angelica tour's start.

"After Michael's tragic death, there was a music director wanted," he went on. "They asked if I wanted the job. For me, it was the chance to connect more with them than just as a guest who comes maybe every other year, and to build a style and create a cultural identity.

"In Vienna, there is so much musical life, you have to cry out to be heard. In Los Angeles, there is not this competitive situation. The city is so well organized, with a symphony and a chamber orchestra, there should be a need for a Baroque specialized group in such a place."

Trained as an organist, Haselbock comes from a musical family. His father, Hans, is an oft-recorded organist. His grandfather Johann played organ in a church in Austria. His mother, Sophia, has written several books on Bach. All have influenced his approach to the Baroque repertory -- music dating from roughly 1600 to 1750 -- but especially his father, who co-founded a Vienna school of organ playing in the 1950s.

"It was the first time the historical elements in Bach's music were taken very seriously in regard to articulation -- using the many differences in long and short notes -- and avoiding the mechanics of the earlier approach, which was 'legato and only legato,' " he said.

Nonetheless, Haselbock has "a parallel life with modern music."

"When I was 21, I taught at Luther College in Iowa. I flew out five times to California to meet Ernst Krenek, who wrote two organ concertos for me. That was my first contact with the emigre scene" -- the German and Austrian composers who fled the Nazis and settled on the West Coast. "It was also my first contact with modern music."

He went on to make recordings of decidedly not Baroque music by Krenek, Max Reger, Gyorgy Ligeti and others as well as Romantics such as Liszt and Berlioz. And he made an impressive early mark in Los Angeles in 1991 as an organist playing works by Krenek and Schoenberg.

Still, what interested Musica Angelica was the small period instrument group -- the Vienna Academy Orchestra -- that he launched in Vienna in 1985, the year of the Bach Tricentennial. "It was the second Viennese orchestra to play on period instruments, after Harnoncourt's Concentus Musicus," he said.

That group has issued more than 40 CDs, including Bach's "Brandenburg" Concertos and Orchestral Suites, Haydn's "Creation" and all of Schubert's Masses and symphonies.

It is also Musica Angelica's partner on the tour, which runs through April 8 and includes stops in Savannah, Ga., New York, Hungary, Austria, Spain and Italy.

"Usually in 'St. Matthew,' you divide one orchestra into two parts," Haselbock said. "But we will have two very excellent but very different groups.

"The first orchestra actually has the much more important part. In Vienna, Musica Angelica will play Orchestra One. In Los Angeles, my Vienna group will play Orchestra One. We'll also have three American soloists and three European soloists, as well as my Vienna choir and an American choir.

"The message is that this is an international 'St. Matthew Passion.' It really is a good mixture between the two worlds."


Musica Angelica

Where: First United Methodist Church, 500 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Price: $12 to $45

Contact: (310) 458-4504,

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