Salonen leads Philharmonic in a meditative evening of Saariaho

Fri Oct 14, 2016 at 1:44 pm
Clarinetist Kari Kriikku performa Saariaho's xxx with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the New York Philharmonic Thursady night at the Park Avenue Armory. Photo: Chris Lee

Clarinetist Kari Kriikku performa Saariaho’s “D’OM LE VRAI SENS” with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at the Park Avenue Armory. Photo: Chris Lee

For those who like their media mixed, the performance Thursday night by the New York Philharmonic of four works by Kaija Saariaho in the impressive Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory, with musicians on the move around the premises and a light show pulsing and swirling on the big screen, was a feast.

On the other hand, for those who find the Finnish composer’s scores quite captivating in their own right, the extra visuals may have seemed more a distraction than an enhancement.

On still another hand, Saariaho herself wrote in program notes that some or all of these elements were in her mind as she composed, so Thursday’s spectacle must be considered in some sense a realization of her ultimate intentions.

The program, titled “Circle Map” after the last work of the evening, presented the four pieces as a continuous stream with no intermission and only the slightest of pauses between them, providing a rare opportunity in a live concert to hear nearly 90 minutes’ worth of a composer’s meditative works without mood-breaking applause.

Two of the pieces—D’OM LE VRAI SENS and Circle Map—received their New York premieres Thursday night. The performance of Lumière et Pesanteur was its first in the United States.

The spirit of Pierre Boulez hovered over the occasion, not only in the pedigree of the featured composer—who is an alumna of IRCAM, the new-music research institute founded by Boulez—but in the “mise-en-espace” of director Pierre Audi, with a portion of the audience on cushions on the floor, recalling the “rug concerts” of Boulez’s tenure as music director of the Philharmonic in the 1970s.

That feeling of liberation from concert-hall regimentation—ironic, perhaps, in a building that celebrates regiments of another kind–informed the seductive antics of clarinetist Kari Kriikku as he moved around and through the orchestra and audience in D’OM LE VRAI SENS , the concerto composed for him in 2009-10. 

In this case, one experienced the visual action as springing directly from the charm and inventiveness of Kriikku’s playing. (A grateful Saariaho dedicated the work to him in recognition of the novel sounds and techniques he had placed at her disposal as she composed.)

The spotlight that caught Kriikku’s flowing white shirt, and the narrow path of light in which soprano Jennifer Zetlan circumnavigated the silent orchestra during her performance of Lonh for singer and electronics, were examples of Jennifer Tipton’s subtle yet effective lighting design for this performance.

Another was the pool of soft blue light in which the orchestra, seated in the middle of the cavernous, steel-vaulted space, played the brief opening piece,Lumière et Pesanteur.  This gentle evocation of “light and heaviness,” composed in 2009 as a gift to Salonen after he had led a performance of Saariaho’s La Passion di Simone, displayed the composer’s kaleidoscopic orchestral sound at its most ethereal.

The conductor, enjoying a few minutes of undivided audience attention, led “his” piece with clear, graceful gestures, his hands seemingly waving in a soft breeze.

His conducting style for the rest of the evening may be described as time-keeping with character, as he managed complex musical and visual movements with a definite beat that still managed to reflect the mood of the moment.

The challenge in writing about a program of Saariaho’s music is not to use the word “shimmering” in every other sentence. The sounds of high-pitched percussion, strings and brass slip in and out of each other seemingly without boundaries, creating a malleable sonority unlike any other composer’s.  The title of a Debussy piano prelude (quoting the poet Beaudelaire) comes to mind:  “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir.”  On Thursday night, sounds and scents did indeed seem to turn in the vast room’s dark air.

Much credit for that goes to sound designer Mark Grey, whose location of sounds around the room complemented Saariaho’s exceptional ability to weave electronics and a live orchestra into a single sonic tapestry.

It was in fact tapestries—the celebrated medieval series of The Lady and the Unicorn—that inspired Kriikku’s concerto.  The six art works celebrate each of the five senses plus an ambiguous sixth, variously interpreted as sexual desire or divine love. 

Saariaho’s score subtly suggested the character of each sense, from the languid colors of Smell to the nervous excitement of Touch, and seemed to favor the erotic interpretation of the last tapestry, as a pulsing high piano note drove soft spurts of brass over cushions of string sound.  Ultimately, the violinists and violists themselves could not resist the allure of the roving clarinet and rose from their seats to play while roaming through the audience.

The accompanying projections by Jean-Baptiste Barrière explored details of the medieval tapestries or abstractly suggested their weave and texture, providing a subtle backdrop for the musical performance and choreography.

Similarly, Kriikku’s stylized motion and subtle use of multiphonics and other exotic clarinet effects, all of it lightly amplified and manipulated electronically, shifted the musical spotlight from him to the work itself.  Nevertheless, his charismatic performance was enough to prompt a stirring of applause at the end, which the conductor silenced with a small gesture.

Soprano Zetlan was a picture of calm dignity—literally a picture, in a loop-delayed closeup video of herself projected on the screen—as she trod her circle of light, singing a medieval Provençal love poem in Lonh.  Realizing a score full of detailed instructions (even as to the width of the singer’s vibrato) and challengingly long and soft high notes, Zetlan achieved the illusion of a spontaneous meditation on a distant lover amid the sounds of nature.

Lonh was composed in 1996 as a prologue to Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin (The Distant Love), whose Metropolitan Opera premiere is slated for December 1.  The work is a feat of electronic virtuosity, processing a reading of the poem in various languages, instrumental notes, the singer’s voice, and the sounds of bird calls, rain, and wind into an elegy of longing.

A striking effect of the singer’s movement through the audience was that her voice became more “live” as she approached a listener and more electronic as she receded, heightening the feeling of distance and loss.

Saariaho composed Circle Map in 2012 to verses by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi.  By the composer’s account, the musical composition followed the rhythms and contours of the recorded voice of Arshia Cont reading the poems in the original Persian. 

According to her program note, the composer, in collaboration with Barrière, then blended the processed recording with the orchestral score. The result was further processed during the performance itself and distributed around six speakers in the hall. 

All this sonic wizardry was somewhat overtaken in the event by Barriere’s video projections, particularly that of a calligrapher’s hand slowly tracing elegant Persian characters amid abstract colored swirls and throbbing amoebas, while dancing letters of English text assembled into translated lines of Rumi’s text. 

Alternately calm and engrossing and busy as a Fillmore light show, the projections had the effect of relegating Saariaho’s exquisitely calibrated score to background music. In this case, less would have been more.

Meanwhile, more was more in Saariaho’s response to the poems, as the prevailing meditative mood of the evening gradually yielded to music of greater passion.  The composer’s preference for attenuated textures—emphasizing the empty space between high percussion and rumbling double basses, for instance—gave way to fuller orchestral sound as one felt the poet’s arms gently encircling the music.

“If it fades, we fade,” wrote Rumi of music in the work’s closing poem.  After Circle Map faded to its close and the room went dark, the applause (at last) was warm yet somehow meditative. The evening’s artists, including the composer, came to the podium to acknowledge it briefly. Then the lights came up and the near-capacity audience filed quietly out of the enormous room.

The program will be repeated 7 p.m. Friday.; 212-933-5812.

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