A Saariaho premiere launches “Bach Revisited” at the Miller Theatre

Fri Feb 07, 2014 at 12:46 pm
Jennifer Koh  gave the premiere of Kaija Saariaho's "Frises" Thursday night at the MIller Theatre. Photo: Juergen Frank

Jennifer Koh gave the premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s “Frises” Thursday night at the Miller Theatre. Photo: Juergen Frank

Juxtaposed and connected, the music of Bach and Kaija Saariaho, made up the first concert in “Bach Revisited,” a new series at Miller Theatre. The concept pairs Bach with music from a contemporary composer—Kaija Saariaho on opening night—and is a natural extension of the venue’s venerable leadership in promoting both new and early music.

Bach is the inevitable and ultimate choice in connecting the new to the old. He is the one figure whom all subsequent composers must respond to, the Moses of the Western classical tradition who set past means as laws, and developed their ramifications to a point that has rarely been reached by others, never surpassed.

The composers were represented by just two pieces, played by one musician. Violinist Jennifer Koh began the evening with Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, and then played Saariaho’s Frises in its belated U.S. premiere. That amounted to less than an hour of music, but in an unusual and welcome program structure, Koh repeated Frises after intermission, before Saariaho took the stage to talk with Koh and Miller Theatre director Melissa Smey.

Saariaho is an unusual choice for this pairing, but effective in revealing an important perspective on Bach. She said that she “normally never use[s] existing forms.” Her music consistently relies on the organic development of sound and timbre. She expressed her love for Bach, but travels outside his path, not a reformer but an alternative practitioner.

As the composer described in the program notes, the genesis of Frises (2011) came from a request by violinist Richard Schmoucler for a new piece related to the Chaconne of the Partita, one that begins with the same D that conclude’s Bach’s composition.

Hearing the new work the second time cemented the first impression: the four-movement piece succeeds in its outer sections when Saariaho stays true to her element and falls short when she tries her hand at traditional forms in the middle two sections. Her inherent sense of time is static and directly contradicts forms like fugue and variation that are built in linear time.

Saariaho’s own D opens “Frise jaune,” a moody, controlled improvisation, vaporous like the lingering resonance of an Air. As she plays, the violinist triggers prepared electronic sounds with a foot pedal, while the sound of the violin is fed through signal processing that mainly produces dark, distant reverberation and echo. The electronics are a shadow that follows the strings and work when unobtrusive.

The shadow is far too dark in the second and third movements, “Frise des flours” and “Pavage.” These are structured as simple variations and are not well thought out or particularly well crafted. Saariaho works with harmony in these sections, a rudimentary series of chords that circle around each other that prove effortful and uninteresting. Her rhythms are clumsy and heavy, pointed downward rather than ahead, and a heavy electronic echo smears subdivisions and syncopations.

The final movement, “Frise grise,” returns to Saariaho’s natural style and is entirely successful. There is a gentle, pointillist theme in the bow that gradually builds, while the left hand plucks the open strings. She means this to be a passacaglia, and there is a ground bass and larger form that slowly comes into view. The sound is wonderful. Koh played the piece with cool technical assurance the first time around, and was noticeably more relaxed and expressive in the outer movements on the repeat.

Bach thrills in the formal structure, the magic trick of comprehensible parts coming together into an unimaginable whole. One after the other, single notes and double-stops are laid like bricks and joists to build a many-chambered object. Its shape and size are in the minds of the musician and the listeners—the essence of interpretation—and what emotions and inspirations we find in there are also our own.

Koh played Bach’s Partita with deep intelligence and musical expression. Her sound hits the sweet spot of size and dryness. The opening Allemanda was on the edge of being too legato, the tempo almost too relaxed, but as the piece went along it was clear that this was a deliberate part of Koh’s conception. In each subsequent movement (Corrente, Sarabanda, Giga) she increasingly brought out the dance feeling, pointing and sharpening the accents and rhythms bit by bit. The preceding sections were shaped by Koh as an overture to the great Chaconne, which she played with an incisive use of dynamics but without excess sentiment, articulately the music clearly and deliberately.

One can hear the Chaconne a thousand times and find it a thousand times new. The effect is the opposite of the prints of M.C. Escher, braided with Bach in Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, and used as a metaphor by Saariaho. Hearing Bach, the mind’s eye and ear are not solipsistic, they find the internal door to the infinitely expanding, infinite universe.

“Bach: Revisited” continues April 17 with music by Bach and Joan Tower. millertheatre.com

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