AXIOM musicians get to the radiant heart of Saariaho’s music

Tue Dec 13, 2016 at 12:04 pm
Music of Kaija Saariaho was performed by AXIOM Monday night at Alice Tully Hall.

Music of Kaija Saariaho was performed by AXIOM Monday night at Alice Tully Hall.

The December run of the Metropolitan Opera’s magnificent production of L’Amour de Loin has possibly whetted local appetites for more of Kaija Saariaho’s music. For anyone so hungered, Monday night’s all-Saariaho AXIOM concert in Alice Tully Hall was surely a tremendously satisfying feast.

AXIOM is a Juilliard ensemble that plays 20th and 21st century music, with the excellent conductor Jeffrey Milarsky as music director. That this is an all-student ensemble should be both noted and forgotten—one can find it remarkable that these young musicians play so well, and then one notices nothing else but how exceptional the music-making is.

That was the case with the three compositions AXIOM played; Lichtbogen, Solar and, after intermission, Notes on Light, with another student musician, Khari Joyner, as solo cellist. These are exemplary scores that demonstrate why Saariaho is one of the most important and accomplished of contemporary composers.

The concert also demonstrated the frightening level of talent in young musicians today. It was a lesson in how the massive advancements in instrumental technique and virtuosity over the past century have produced the highest levels of musical skill overall. Young musicians are not only technically adept but sensitive to the intellectual and expressive concepts in contemporary music.

The sound AXIOM produced was beautiful, one of the primary values of Saariaho’s music. Beautiful as not just neat symmetry and exactitude, but as in sublime; the Saariaho sound is alluring and more than a little foreboding, like a spirit who beckons you to enter a room shrouded in utter darkness. What’s beyond the threshold? Is it safe? How deep does it go?

Saariaho’s music goes deep. Lichtbogen and Solar sounded like differing studies of the same subject, how to build a piece through shifting colors, timbres, dynamics, and levels of energy. Both works flow and ebb, then come back again, like waves; Lichtbogen is generally quiet while Solar has more rhythmic energy and a more extroverted stance. They both use amplification and signal processing as an integral, extra-instrumental element.

The precision, confidence, and expressive variety of AXIOM’s playing was wonderful. The ensemble produced a vibrant sound, skillfully blending timbres and morphing from one color to another—that is Saariaho’s formal means. Each individual player moved from rounded to husky, and pure to harsh tones, whether they were playing a stringed instrument or a woodwind. The ensemble gave the clear impression that each was listening closely to the other, which is high-level music making.

Saariaho’s roots are in a Medieval sense of time as a still point in an endless cycle, translated through the organic forms that Debussy pioneered. There is constant motion and detail—Milarsky maintained a subtle but strong pulse—but the music has no interest in telling a story or getting anywhere in particular. It’s all about being lost in an eternal now that promises an infinite variety of internal experiences. The ultimate compliment to AXIOM’s playing then was that time stood still during the performances.

This reached remarkable depths with Notes on Light. It is fair to call this a cello concerto in five sections, “Translucent, Secret,” “On fire,” “Awakening,” “Eclipse,” and “Heart of Light.” Those evocative titles clearly indicate the aesthetic goals.

As fine as AXIOM’s playing was in the first half, they sounded even better behind Joyner’s spectacular performance. A DMA candidate at Juilliard, his instrumental skill was stunning: the part calls for constant quick slides from normal timbre to harmonics and back, glissandos, sul tasto playing–in short an arsenal of advanced techniques. There’s nothing showy about this, each detail in integrated into the piece as a whole, and the relationship between soloist and ensemble is conversational, even intimate.

Joyner played everything with unerring intonation and a rich, dark sound—even his harmonics were strong. Even more, he dug into the music with passion, bringing out every last measure of complexity that Saariaho’s score unleashes. The composer was in the house and, while taking in the applause, Saariaho herself seemed dazzled by his performance, the capstone on one of the year’s finest concerts of contemporary music.

AXIOM plays music by Boulez, Abrahamsen, and Adams, 7:30 p.m., February 23.

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