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A Pending Discovery: Salonen’s Sappho


Discovery Ensemble’s Music Director Courtney Lewis recently told BMInt, “We really wanted to play Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Five Images after Sappho after having done the composer’s Mania last spring,” adding that he also knew the “perfect soprano for it, Karin Wolverton.” On Sunday, December 2nd at Sanders Theatre, the acclaimed 40-piece chamber orchestra will also be playing Bartók’s Divertimento and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2.

“After deciding on Sappho we then thought about the elements of music that would connect with it.”  Bartók was one of Salonen’s biggest influences when he was younger, and later, as a conductor, Salonen has recorded a lot of Bartok’s music. “And I thought the joyfulness and substantiality of the Beethoven second mixed well.”  Further to validate their choices, Lewis said that when he and co-founder David St. George met Salonen at their concert last spring, “the composer thought both [additions to this program] spoke well with his piece.”

The poetry of Sappho is somewhat enigmatic (perhaps erotic, but not enough so to have been declared out-of-bounds to young ladies of an earlier era along with the “Song of Solomon”). In his website, Salonen iterates his fascination with the late-7th– to the early 6th-century B.C. Greek poetess from Lesbos: “It is the fragmentary nature of the material, and therefore an almost open form, that makes Sappho so fascinating to set to music. … The tremendous energy of suffocated sexuality and the vibrant eroticism in Sappho got my imagination going. Sappho reveals to us secrets of the female soul like nobody else. There is no subject more interesting. Between these small islands of words one can hear music. I set out to compose a cycle in which I would describe a woman’s life from childhood to old age and death.” Salonen went on to say that the “timing was not right: my son Oliver was born in the middle of the composition period, and it became totally impossible for me to imagine death and loneliness. I decided to concentrate on the first part of life instead.”

Music critic Shirley Fleming, writing in Musical America shortly after the piece was premiered in 1999, called it “stunningly effective”; John Allison of The Times found it had “a glowing warmth, not found in his [earlier] work.”

The soloist in next week’s performance, Karin Wolverton, is a native Minnesotan who has performed with opera companies throughout the United States and last year made her Carnegie Hall debut with the Minnesota Orchestra. This upcoming performance with Discovery Ensemble will be her second collaboration with Lewis, the first having been in the Poulenc Gloria at New Hampshire Music Festival in 2010.

The momentum of Discovery’s rise has not diminished, even given a few changes in string personnel this year. There were ninety-four applicants “almost all of them extraordinary,” who auditioned for the open positions, noted St. George. “The quality here is very, very, very high.”

This is a major factor that attracts Lewis to the area. He initially moved here from his native United Kingdom to accept a Zander Fellowship (renewed for a second year) because, he said, there were so many opportunities here to work with a major orchestra every week. Now, more than 50 percent of his engagements are with American orchestras: coming up are engagements in St. Louis, Atlanta, Alabama, and another in Los Angeles. He also will go to Madrid for the first time, and to the BBC Philharmonic. He wants to stay here in the States, “I suppose, because for the foreseeable future, Discovery Ensemble is a big part of my life.”

The referenced concert is on Sunday, December 2nd at 3 pm, at Sanders Theatre, Cambridge. A pre-concert conversation begins at 2 pm.

Bettina A. Norton, editor emerita of the Intelligencer, is a retired museum professional. She has published widely in her field, American historical prints, and in later years, was editor and publisher of The Beacon Hill Chronicle. She has been attending classical music concerts “since the waning years of World War II.”

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