OPERA NEWS - "Making Music: Kaija Saariaho"
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"Making Music: Kaija Saariaho"

Solistes XXI | Zankel Hall

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is currently the holder of the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall, an honor that has led to a series of performances of Saariaho's music — some already realized and some still to be heard. On March 5, the Carnegie Hall premieres of five works by Saariaho were presented in Carnegie's Zankel Hall. Written over more than a twenty year span, the pieces were accompanied by videos directed by Saariaho's longtime collaborator Jean-Baptiste Barrière and featured the French vocal ensemble Solistes XXI.

Since moving to Paris in the 1980s to study at IRCAM, Saariaho has been associated with advanced utilization of computers and electronics. The Zankel program demonstrated the fruits of Saariaho's efforts in works that featured voices paired with live and prerecorded electronics. The vocal element in this music ranged from traditional singing through various extended techniques including sighs, groans, whispers, speech, breath sounds and the pronunciation of phonemes. This music is quite challenging to perform, so it was a great pleasure to hear it so masterfully realized by the eight singers of Solistes XXI.

The first work to be heard was the most recent piece of the program, Écho!, dating from 2007. Utilizing texts by Aleksi Barrière, Écho! refers to the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo, while simultaneously serving as a meditation on the acoustic phenomenon of echoes. The ensemble of eight singers is paired with an electronic environment at first swollen with reverberation. As in the case of natural echo, the strength of reverberation gradually dies off, so that by the end of the piece the electronics essentially have disappeared. As with the rest of the music on this program, Écho! was matched to manipulated live video of the performers and electronically-altered visual imagery, in this instance primarily water images. The overall effect was powerful, at times wistful.

Nuits, Adieux, which followed, has had three incarnations. Originally completed in 1991, it was later transformed into a fully acoustic work for singers. The 2007 version performed here restores the electronic aspect in an updated form. Based on texts of Balzac and contemporary poet Jacques Roubaud, Nuits, Adieux is a mysterious evocation of the changing of light as night falls and a reflective examination of a statement of farewell. The visual accompaniment to the four singers and live electronics featured images of stormy seas and cloud-filled skies. The performance was haunting and of great musical depth.

The first half of the program concluded with the 1995–96 composition Lonh. Written in Occitan, the language of the troubadours, Lonh was a study piece for Saariaho's first opera, L'Amour de Loin, based on the life and works of twelfth-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel. And indeed, those familiar with L'Amour de Loin will definitely hear musical parallels to the opera, particularly to its final scene. Soprano Raphaële Kennedy gave an outstanding rendition of the vocal element of the piece, which includes much pure singing but also a wealth of extended vocal techniques. Accompanied only by electronics, Kennedy managed to retain her sense of pitch while sailing magnificently through the enormous vocal challenges Lonh presents. The text dwells on loneliness and the hopelessness of finding true love.

The second half of the program opened with a work for soprano and electronics, From the Grammar of Dreams (1988), here performed by Maryseult Wieczorek. Setting texts by Sylvia Plath, From the Grammar of Dreams explores debilitating depression and failed human relationships. Wieczorek gave a powerful reading to this early seminal work of Saariaho's, adroitly bringing out the humanity concealed beneath the technical aspects of the music.

The entire vocal ensemble returned for Tag des Jahrs, a 2001 composition, here presented in a 2006 arrangement for Solistes XXI by its director and conductor, Rachid Safir. Tag des Jahrs is based on four late poems by German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin. In his later years, Hölderlin was considered to have gone somewhat insane; in particular, he seems to have lost any sense of time. He wrote poetry under an assumed name and gave his poems fictitious dates, some from centuries past, some from centuries far in the future. The combination of these nineteenth-century poems, each one inspired by a different season of the year, and Saariaho's advanced vocal and electronic music perfectly responded to the poet's time disorientation. The electronics in this work occupied a more metallic timbral world than in any of the previous instances. In places, Saariaho's vocal music leaned back over the centuries in effect if not in style, stimulating memories of the choral works of Brahms and Schubert without overtly mimicking their sound world.

The music on this concert was extraordinary, not merely for its technical qualities but for its sonorous beauty and its unsettled complexity; it made for a most satisfying and though-provoking concert. spacer 


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