COMPOSER OF THE YEAR


The 2008 Honorees

By Mark Swed

Hers is music of transitions, of shifting colors and stunning lyrical beauty. Recent commissions from leading orchestras and performers have made her one of contemporary music's most powerful voices. Her appointment as composer-in-residence at Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival this summer will undoubtedly widen her appreciative audience.

In 1984, Kaija Saariaho said she would never write an opera. She was wrong. L'Amour de loin had its premiere at the Salzburg Festival the summer of 2000. A work of stunning lyrical beauty, ardent longing, and absorbing emotional depth, L'Amour is a Tristan und Isolde for a new century. The opera was hailed a masterpiece in the press, embraced by audiences, and won the 2003 Grawemeyer Award. "It is possible that my genre of music will die out in 20 years," the Finnish composer with a fondness for French modernism also mistakenly predicted some years ago. An IRCAM-based spectralist who couldn't imagine any commercial potential for her specialized, computer-aided approach to harmony and timbre, she described herself as "a square peg that won't fit into a round hole."

The peg, in fact, fits. The work of
Musical America's Composer of the Year is alive and well. Over the past decade, she has had orchestral commissions from the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, the Orchestre de Paris, and the Berlin Philharmonic. The Emerson Quartet spent part of the second half of 2007 touring her latest string quartet. Santa Fe, so enamored of L'Amour, will produce her second, grimmer and grittier opera, Adriana Mater, this summer. Also this summer, Saariaho will be composer-in-residence at that one-time shrine of classical-music populism, Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival.

The simplest explanation for all this is that Saariaho has changed. Change, after all, is the essence of her music, a music of gradual processes in which one thing morphs into another in surprising and gratifying ways. In doing so, she always sought surprising possibilities, and ultimately the possibilities have surprised even her.

Saariaho's musical transitions are both physical and poetic. The Finnish writer Liisamaija Hatusalo identifies several: from dark to light, rough to smooth, noise to sound, nebulous to dense textures, crystal to smoke, instrumental sound to synthetic sound, voice to speech, and music's ultimate transition--sound to silence. It isn't the end points that matter, but the infinitely graded, mysterious middle ground.

Born in Helsinki in 1952, Saariaho is a beneficiary of Finland's remarkable musical education system, which has produced perhaps the world's most musically literate society. But hers is also a country with little ethnic or social diversity. With practically no role models for a woman composer in Finland, she studied visual arts as well as composition and took up with a group of rebellious fellow Sibelius Academy students that included Esa-Pekka Salonen and Magnus Lindberg. They turned to the European avant-garde for inspiration, and Saariaho went on to investigate the intricate complexities of total serialism with Brian Ferneyhough in Freiberg. In 1982, she settled in Paris to absorb the computer-aided compositional style of "spectralism" at IRCAM, and there she remains now a French-Finnish composer.

Her scores from the early 1980s are filled with diffuse clouds of complex chords built up from long bass lines. Colors shift gradually between instruments and electronics. Her concern with the visual, social, and spiritual is evident from the start. Writing in her diary upon completing her first orchestra piece,
Verblendungen, she refers to "blindingness," "shadowing," "the sum of independent worlds," and death.

These remain Saariaho's concerns. If her music is now more conventionally beautiful, if she has found room for beguiling melody, that only produces more nuance to her exquisite play of light and darkness, to the weave of textures, to the dazzle of her color fields always there in her scores. What is new is a strong theatrical element.

She often starts with a specific sound and performer. In Amers, a 1992 cello concerto, Saariaho began by analyzing the physical properties of the Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen playing a cello trill. Two years later, her physical response to Gidon Kremer rehearsing Beethoven's Violin Concerto inspired her violin concerto, Graal théâtre. In both cases, emotion comes before engineering, but sonic engineering then amplified her emotions.

Writing for soprano--and, in particular, Dawn Upshaw's voice--Saariaho's music took on even more of a personal quality in the mid '90s. The soprano voice is, after all,
her voice, Saariaho has said. After a couple of exploratory song cycles, L'Amour became the first major flowering of that new style, less complex but also subtler in its haunting control of color and slow flow of time.

With an eloquent libretto by the French-Lebanese novelist, poet, and essayist Amin Maalouf, and a watery, wondrous staging by Peter Sellars,
L'Amour is a flowering of many disparate elements that had long held sway in Saariaho's music. Wagner's Tristan is an obsession. So, too, is the music of the 12th-century Aquitaine troubadour, Jaufré Rudel, a Crusader who sang about his love for the Countess of Tripoli, whom he never saw. In the opera, written for
Upshaw as the Countess, the lovers only meet upon Jaufré's deathbed, their love from afar represented in a musical style in which ancient song meets modern sounds through the intermediary of modal melody.

Saariaho has continued the collaboration with Maalouf and Sellars in all her subsequent stage work.
Adriana Mater, given its premiere by the Paris Opera in 2006, is an attempt at realistic reconciliation in the wake of war's ravages and rape. The score is violent, angry, and unsentimental. With La Passion de Simone, a cantata for Upshaw and chorus, staged by Sellars with the aid of a solo dancer, Saariaho approaches the work of the French pacifist philosopher Simone Weil.

In her fanatical taking on the suffering of others, Weil could only find release in death--she starved herself, refusing to eat as long as others didn't have food. Here Saariaho slows time almost to a standstill, creating a contemplative space. There are cracks of light in the dark, moody music, which feels fatally attracted to silence the way Weil was to death. Commissioned by the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna and the Los Angeles Philharmonic,
Simone had its premiere last fall in the theater of a beautiful, creepy building in which the Nazis performed medical experiments on Jews. Its American premiere will be at Mostly Mozart, followed by a staging at Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of Esa-Pekka Salonen's final season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Post-
Simone, Saariaho continues to explore the crevices. On the last page of Notes on Light, an incandescent cello concerto premiered by the Boston Symphony last year, the composer quotes T.S. Eliot: "Looking into the heart of light, the silence." She dedicates Terra Memoria, her flickering new string quartet for the Emerson Quartet, to "those departed." Vacillations in music are, she says, like our memories of people no longer with us. Their life is complete, but our memories, our feelings, our dreams of them are fluid.

Spectral music is, at heart, a clinical exploration of the acoustical properties of sound. Saariaho's great achievement
has been to use it to relate sound to experience by taking the certainty out of acoustics. Her spectacular transformations offer a sonic universe of grey areasthe areas in which humanity mostly operates--which she then magically paints with a music of enticing, magnificent colors.

Mark Swed is music critic of the
Los Angeles Times.

 

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