Saariaho Moment Is Rare, NY Phil Makes Most Of It

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Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the New York Philharmonic performing composer Kaija Saariaho's "Circle Map," at the Park Avenue Armory with clarinetist Kari Krikku, on October 13, 2016, during a dress rehearsal. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan performs. Also on the program were: Lumière et Pesanteur (2009, NY Premiere) D’om le Vrai Sens (2010, NY Premiere) Lonh (1996) Circle Map (2012, NY Premiere) Composer: Kaija Saariaho Credit: Stephanie Berger
Esa-Pekka Salonen and the New York Philharmonic at Park Avenue Armory offer something special in a special place.
(Concert photos by Stephanie Berger)
By George Loomis

NEW YORK — With the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and the French-Lebanese stage director Pierre Audi in town for engagements at the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic recognized an opportunity to do something special in a special place and took advantage of it. The place was the Park Avenue Armory, of which Audi became artistic director last year.

Accordingly, “Circle Map,” an all-Saariaho program, was given Oct. 13-14 in the Armory’s expansive Drill Hall conducted by the orchestra’s composer-in-residence, Esa-Pekka Salonen. It proved to be as fascinating as it was daunting: four major “spatial works” lasting in the aggregate nearly 90 minutes and played without intermission or even applause between them. Apart from Lonh (1996), all were relatively recent compositions  being heard in New York for the first time.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the New York Philharmonic performing composer Kaija Saariaho's "Circle Map," at the Park Avenue Armory with clarinetist Kari Krikku, and soprano Jennifer Zetlan on October 13, 2016, during a PERFORMANCE. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan performs. Also on the program were: ALL-SAARIAHO PROGRAM: Lumière et Pesanteur (2009, NY Premiere) D’om le Vrai Sens (2010, NY Premiere) Lonh (1996) Circle Map (2012, NY Premiere) Composer: Kaija Saariaho Credit: Stephanie Berger
Kaija Saariaho’s works were staged within the Armory’s expansive Drill Hall.

What made the evening distinctive was that the pieces were presented in a “mise-en-espace” (literally, a staging within a space, rather than scenery) conceived by Audi, whose production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell opens at the Met on Oct. 18. With video and projection designs by Jean-Baptiste Barrière and lighting by Jennifer Tipton, the visual dimension intensified the listening experience and even gave Saariaho’s meticulously conceived but often austere music dramatic impetus.

This was apparent from the first measures of the opening work, Lumière et Pesanteur (2009), which was performed with the utmost precision and an understanding born of Salonen’s long experience with the music of his compatriot. It was also reassuring that the gently shifting, cloud-like, yellowish projections for Lumière et Pesanteur called little attention to themselves but rather seemed to be genuinely conceived to complement the music.

Those familiar with Saariaho’s music are likely to associate it with intricately wrought sonorities that are post-tonal but not notably discordant and often stress high pitches that result in an icy, tingly quality. Melodies tend to defer to those sonorities, yet they are there — prominently so in the clarinet concerto D’om le Vrai Sens (2010), along with such other sounds from the solo instrument as oscillating tremolos and outbursts akin to the whinny of a horse.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the New York Philharmonic performing composer Kaija Saariaho's "Circle Map," at the Park Avenue Armory with clarinetist Kari Krikku, and soprano Jennifer Zetlan on October 13, 2016, during a PERFORMANCE. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan performs. Also on the program were: ALL-SAARIAHO PROGRAM: Lumière et Pesanteur (2009, NY Premiere) D’om le Vrai Sens (2010, NY Premiere) Lonh (1996) Circle Map (2012, NY Premiere) Composer: Kaija Saariaho Credit: Stephanie Berger
Kari Kriikku, concerto soloist, emerged playing from the audience.

The concerto was brilliantly played by its dedicatee, Kari Kriikku, who was first seen emerging from the audience — roughly 1,000 in all, arranged around the orchestra in a semi-circle. Inspiration for D’om le Vrai Sens came from six medieval tapestries, The Lady and the Unicorn, housed in Paris’ Medieval Museum. But only twice — at the beginning and at the end — was one of them seen in original form in the projections. For the most part, the projections consisted of swirling images of the tapestries’ pastel-like colors, sometimes with the outline of a figure visible, all combining with what one heard to make a unified statement.

Lonh, which means far or distant in the old Provençal language Occitan, was written in the lead-up to Saariaho’s first opera, L’Amour de Loin, which will be seen in a new production at the Met starting Dec. 1. Calling for soprano and electronics, Lonh allowed the orchestra (if not the audience) to have a bit of a break. The text is by the troubadour Jaufré Rudel, a character in Saariaho’s opera, and it extols a love experienced from afar.

Woven into the electronics are fragments of the text spoken in French, English, and Occitan, along with sounds from nature, such those of birds, wind, and rain. The projections, which signaled a shift to more representational content as the evening progressed, presented medieval-style images of the text, including the ship that (in the opera) brings Rudel to his beloved. Best of all was the haunting vocal line compellingly sung by soprano Jennifer Zetlan, her voice amplified by sound designer Mark Grey. A recurring melodic motif sung near the end, which elaborated on an ascending triad, lingers in the memory.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the New York Philharmonic performing composer Kaija Saariaho's "Circle Map," at the Park Avenue Armory with clarinetist Kari Krikku, and soprano Jennifer Zetlan on October 13, 2016, during a PERFORMANCE. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan performs. Also on the program were: ALL-SAARIAHO PROGRAM: Lumière et Pesanteur (2009, NY Premiere) D’om le Vrai Sens (2010, NY Premiere) Lonh (1996) Circle Map (2012, NY Premiere) Composer: Kaija Saariaho Credit: Stephanie Berger
Video projections by Jean-Baptiste Barrière intensified the listening experience.

The program might well have ended with Lonh, which brought the running time nearly to the 60-minute point. But the concert pressed on with Circle Map, a six-movement work that gave the concert its name. Written for orchestra and electronics, it was inspired by quatrains from the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi; projections here were dominated by the hand of a Middle Eastern calligrapher, working from right to left. I wouldn’t say Circle Map was any weaker than the pieces heard earlier; quite the contrary, it seemed to be on the same high level. But by this time, a saturation point was close upon me.

Despite the seemingly diverse extra-musical sources behind Saariaho’s compositions — the movements of Circle Map address the different senses of the human body — there is a sameness to her music: an intellectual rigor that edges out emotionality, a hesitancy to build to sweeping climaxes, tempos that are consistently on the slow side. I found myself focusing on shortcomings rather than on the considerable musical virtues brought to the fore in performances that gave new cause for regret that Salonen was not named the Philharmonic’s incoming musical director. Still, this was a special evening, and the visuals were integral in making it so.

George Loomis writes regularly for the International New York Times and is a New York correspondent for Opera magazine.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the New York Philharmonic performing composer Kaija Saariaho's "Circle Map," at the Park Avenue Armory with clarinetist Kari Krikku, on October 13, 2016, during a dress rehearsal. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan performs. Also on the program were: Lumière et Pesanteur (2009, NY Premiere) D’om le Vrai Sens (2010, NY Premiere) Lonh (1996) Circle Map (2012, NY Premiere) Composer: Kaija Saariaho Credit: Stephanie Berger
Saariaho’s clarinet concerto ‘D’om le Vrai Sens’ was brilliantly played by its dedicatee, Kriikku.