United States Saariaho: Soloists, New York Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Park Avenue Armory, New York City. 13.10.2016. (KG)
Kaija Saariaho – Lumière et pesanteur (2009); D’om le Vrai Sens (2010); Lonh (1996); Circle Map (2012)
Even before the immersion into Finnish composer Kajia Saariaho’s sound world, the setting inside New York’s Park Avenue Armory was simply grand. Music stand lamps shone like a field of stars against an image of the moon projected onto a large screen in the back of the massive room. The cavernous space was warm, almost cozy even, with concentric arcs of legless chairs and rows of risers behind them. The scene suggested the opulence of an old movie house—a transcendence of reality that only expanded once the music began. Saariaho’s work is, to invoke a cliché, cinematic. It’s imaginative and evocative. It is, to use an even triter expression, mood music, although somehow that descriptor has come to suggest anything but what the two words convey. Saariaho’s music is not a mental exercise so much as an indulgence for the heart.
The first piece, Lumière et pesanteur, was delicate, animated. Trills floated about the space like mythical creatures (another time-worn allusion that, in the case of Saariaho’s utterly original music seems to fit). But in D’om le Vrai Sens, the scene shifted with a suspenseful soundtrack and projected images of medieval tapestries (the final one, depicting a unicorn, buttressed suspicions that mythical creatures were indeed present). In short order, from another part of the hall came a scream, or the blowing of some double-reed hunting horn, or perhaps the cry of a giant lizard baby.
Eventually the sound revealed itself to be the remarkably played clarinet of Kari Kriikku, for whom the piece was written. As Kriikku moved around the room, striking heroic poses with his instrument held high, this reporter grew concerned about the risk of requiring what is called in the popular press a “spoiler alert,” such was the sense of wonder and discovery in watching Saariaho’s ceremony. Suffice to say the story carried on though instrumental apparitions: some mysterious, muffled shuffling turned out to be a group of latecomers allowed in en masse, as well as a platoon of tuned percussion.
It was hard not to see the four pieces as a single, 90-minute narrative, only somewhat abstract. In Book III, the 1996 vocal work Lonh (the only piece previously heard in New York), the heroic reedsman was gone, replaced by the damsel soprano Jennifer Zetlan, shown onscreen in a slow motion montage of herself superimposed onto a woodland scene, as she moved about the room. Her amplified voice and the accompanying electronic track dripped with the room’s resonance.
The final piece, Circle Map, seemed the creator’s personal tale. As the orchestra returned from its respite a calligrapher’s hand appeared onscreen, painting what came off as a hybrid of Arabic script and musical notation, with a small mat on his desk mirroring the previous tapestries. Here, too, came the antagonist in the form of a deep, prerecorded voice, with steadily metered tympani. Like the slow strokes of the calligrapher’s brush, the music moved in thick, long, straight lines, anchored only by its own momentum.
Admittedly, there is a bit of fancy in connecting these four pieces written across six years as if there were a narrative thread, but the fluidity in Saariaho’s work encourages such speculation, as did conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s active discouraging of applause in between the sections. It may not have been the intention of the composer or the conductor to create such links, but the evening seemed ripe for interpretation. It was a chance to luxuriate—perchance to dream—in Saariaho’s sound.
Kurt Gottschalk writes about classical, jazz and other forms of music for publications throughout America and Europe and is the host of the Miniature Minotaurs radio program on WFMU. He has also published two books of fiction and prose through Lulu press.