In New York, Immersed in the Dreamworld of Kaija Saariaho

United StatesUnited States  Making Music: Kaija Saariaho: Jean-Baptiste Barrière (video artist), Solistes XXI, Rachid Safir (director), Zankel Hall, New York City, 5.3.2012 (BH)

Nuits, adieux
From the Grammar of Dreams
Tag des Jahrs
(2001; arr. Rachid Safir, 2006)

Soistes XXI
Rachid Safir, director
Céline Boucard, soprano
Raphaële Kennedy, soprano
Maryseult Wieczorek, soprano
Sébastien Amadieu, countertenor
Laurent David, tenor
Randol Rodriguez-Rubio, tenor
Jean-Sébastien Nicolas, baritone
Jean-Christophe Jacques, baritone

Jean-Baptiste Barrière, general image conception
Isabelle Barrière and François Galard, cameras
Franck Rossi, sound engineer
Jean-Baptiste Barrière, Pierre-Jean Bouyer and François Galard, image realization

“I’m not a techno-freak,” said Kaija Saariaho, talking with Carnegie Hall’s Jeremy Geffen at intermission during this otherworldly concert for voices and electronics at Zankel Hall, with the superb Solistes XXI ensemble directed by Rachid Safir. But the comment might come across as over-modest, given Saariaho’s extraordinarily empathy for electronic sounds, elegantly handled by her husband, Jean-Baptiste Barrière, who also contributed video to accompany each work.

Écho!, with words by Aleksei Barrière (Saariaho and Barrière’s son) deploys technology to create the reverberation implied in the title. The eight vocalists delivered the texts, immersed in Saariaho’s shimmering tapestry – with uncommon expertise. Nuits, adieux was originally scored for four vocalists and electronics (1991), then arranged in a version for the soloists and mixed choir (1997), before this version with visuals appeared in 2007. Texts for the “nuit” sections are from Jacques Roubaud, a French writer and mathematician, and the “adieux” portions are from Balzac’s novel Séraphita.

Lonh (“From Afar”) takes 12th-century texts by Jaufré Rudel and marries them to a dreamlike landscape inhabited by a single soprano – here, the superb Raphaële Kennedy. (The work was a precursor to Saariaho’s opera, L’amour de loin.) The singer’s voice is electronically processed – very carefully – interwoven with a second track of electronic samples from nature. (Franck Rossi was the expert sound engineer for the evening.) At the end Ms. Kennedy stood quietly, smiling, as applause rained down.

At first I wasn’t hooked by Mr. Barrière’s visuals: footage of nature and abstractions combined with live shots of the singers performing – the latter altered, as if the ensemble were being glimpsed through prisms or a wall of rain. Much of the first half I spent looking away from the screen; the images seemed more like an accompaniment rather than a force that transformed the result. But somehow in the second half, Barrière’s concepts began to make more sense. Perhaps one needs more physical time to allow the video to work its magic.

Maryseult Wieczorek was the pure, patient soloist in From the Grammar of Dreams, which finds the composer in a more declamatory mood. Here the singer and electronics frame texts by Sylvia Plath – a poem “Paralytic” and excerpts from The Bell Jar – and the “depressed mental state” is only enhanced by Saariaho’s glittering sounds. Words and phonemes seem to float and hover in the air. Tag des Jahrs closed the program, with texts by Friedrich Hölderlin. Originally for mixed choir, this quietly ecstatic version was created for just eight voices. The electronics again come from nature – wind, birds, and other voices – but the singers employ a more traditional style (rhythmic unison, imitative counterpoint) to match Hölderlin’s text. The result, with the keen attention from the singers matched with Barrière’s subtle electronics, was mesmerizing.

Bruce Hodges