Last night the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) presented Music of Kaija Saariaho at the Gardner Museum as part of the Avant Gardner series. The concert ran about 75 minutes and presented a snapshot of the last 20 years of compositional activity of the Finnish composer, who was present for the occasion. The magisterial performance brought his unique soundscape to palpableICE took root in April 2000 when a group of students at Oberlin Conservatory of Music decided to mark the millennium by commissioning and premiering five new chamber music works. The intervening years have seen the ICE grow and expand, commissioning and recording contemporary works to great critical acclaim. It often works in conjunction with Miller Theatre, Columbia University, and its “Composer Portrait” series: concerts dedicated to the work of a single composer, often with the composer present to discuss the works. This series is going strong after a dozen years, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum brings some of the Composer Portrait concerts to Boston from time to time. It is a wonderful format; I wish more of the Composer Portrait concerts came to Boston. But from what I saw last night, the audience is devoted and dedicated, but not so numerous. We heard that the Saariaho Portrait concert in New York (seemingly, the one in October 2009) started late because of the long line of people trying to buy tickets at the last minute; that concert was packed, but the Gardner’s Calderwood Hall, sadly, was not.
Kaija Saariaho, currently Composer-in-Residence at Carnegie Hall, studied in Helsinki (Sibelius Academy, with Paavo Heininen – along with Magnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen), Freiburg-im-Breisgau (Hochschule für Musik Freiburg, with Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber), and Paris (at IRCAM). Her music has absorbed all these influences, as well as music by Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey in Darmstadt, a revelation to her on first hearing it in 1978. Their “spectral music” gave Saariaho a way to move beyond the too-tight strictures of serialism, and this aesthetic focus on timbre and sound evolving over time remain key facets of her compositions.
The concert began with “Miranda’s Lament” (1997 – 1999) from The Tempest Songbook; it featured Tony Arnold, soprano. This setting of the text “If by your art, dearest father” (Act I, scene 2) is highly textural and uses airy tones, wide oscillations (tremolo, trill) overblown flute, and sul ponticello cello; the piece ends in wispy harmonics. The performance perfectly captured the sprite-like character of the music, and the other-wordy harmonies proved a good doorway into Saariaho’s music. Oi Kuu (1990, which freely translates as “For a Moon”), featuring Claire Chase (bass flute) and Kivie Cahn-Lipman (cello), was a true chamber performance with both musicians playing off one score in a tight ensemble. The music, which calls for vocalizations and overblown notes on flute, is evocatively atmospheric as it eschews a traditional tonal center while maintaining a sense of harmony. Changing Light (2002), performed by Arnold (soprano) and David Bowlin (violin), sets a text on “Light and darkness”; the violin part is as melodic as the vocal line, using a combination of vibrato and straight tones and some micro-tonality. There is a looser relationship between the two lines, one based more on shared character and affect. For Tocar (2010), Jacob Greenberg (piano) joined Bowlin on stage. This work uses micro-tonality and portamenti (in the violin part), recalling the wider oscillations of sound waves heard in the “Miranda’s Lament”; the two parts move independently, briefly come together in unison, then separate. It is a highly effective work; Bowlin and Greenberg gave a touching performance.
Greenberg (piano), Cahn-Lipman (cello), and Nathan Davis (percussion) next performed Serenatas (2008), a five-movement work running about 14 minutes and played in an order determined by the performers. The percussion part includes marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, crotales, bells, cymbals (struck and bowed), tamtam, windchime, and bass drum. It was a delight to watch Nathan Davis dance around this battery of percussion instruments, a one-man percussion section fully in control of the various instruments and this musical part. The work features a prominent, nearly continuous, cello line (marking this work’s relation to Saariaho’s cello concerto, Notes on Light from 2006), and calls for the piano to be played by keyboard and also by plucking specified strings inside the frame of the instrument. The work as a whole is marked by ethereal harmonics based on overtone rows: a post-modern music of the spheres. The piece ends on an ascending harmonic series at the upper end of the cello’s range. The composer wrote of this work: “I would like the attitude of the musicians playing it to be devoted as it would be when playing a serenade to a lover…” ICE amply fulfilled her request in this performance.
The final work on the program was Il Terrestre (2003), a 10-minute work featuring flute (Claire Chase) with a small ensemble of violin (Bowlin), cello (Cahn-Lipman), percussion (Davis), and harp (Nuiko Wadden). This piece reworks Saariaho’s flute concerto, Aile du songe, and is in two movements – “Oiseau dansant” (“Dancing bird”) and “l’Oiseau, un satellite infime” – and draws inspiration from Saint-John Perse’s poems, Oiseaux. Unlike Messiaen, Saariaho does not transcribe birdsong but rather seeks to capture the spirit and motion of the bird; the piece calls for vocalization through the flute, and features a contrast between the resonance of wooden and metallic instruments. The music ranged from tender to piercing, across the full breadth of dynamics. The piece ends by fading out, the drumbeats growing ever softer and here performed by Nathan Davis with his back to the other musicians, relying solely on the ever-diminishing sounds from the other musicians.
With much of Saariaho’s work, there is less a distinctive melody one retains after the concert than an overall impression, an emotional state or a memory. Kaija Saariaho studied as a young girl at the Helsinki Rudolf Steiner School and Steiner education, especially in the arts, aims to connect the physical and spiritual worlds, often encompassing shifting or changing sounds, images, movements. Saariaho’s music seems very much aligned with Steiner’s approach to music: it transports us from the physical world to a more spiritual (or, if one prefers, ethereal) plane. ICE gave an inspired performance of this ravishing music.