Swedish Adventure 1: Saariaho

   I've been in Sweden since Friday and I'm still recovering from jet lag. I screwed the pooch on getting acclimated, was a bit ill over the weekend (something I ate while traveling), and haven't been able to break the funk since. However, today was a day I wasn't going to miss because of my stomach nor my head.

   Kaija Saariaho is the recipient of a Polar Prize this year, and tonight was a concert of her music to kick off the festivities. The concert was an hour long with four pieces, three of which featured cellist Anssi Karttunen. If you're familiar with Saariaho's work, you'll probably recognize that name: most of her cello works are written for Karttunen.

   I was excited for the concert. Bill Brunson had let me know over the weekend it was happening, so I marked it on my mental calendar. I walked the 15 minutes to the tunnelbana (metro, subway, tube), and headed into downtown Stockholm from my suburban abode in Bromma/Sundbyberg. The T is very easy to navigate in Stockholm county, so getting around is cake. The bus system is equally good, and much nicer than any other city I've been in. MUCH nicer. But getting to the konserthuset is easy--T to T-Centralen, walk a couple blocks.

   An hour before the show, I picked up the ticket and a latte. The ticket was acceptably expensive (180 SEK or about $25-28 depending on the exchange). The latte wasn't very good, but I haven't had coffee since I got to Stockholm, so it was worth it. After finishing, I decided to walk the block and ran into Bill and his wife, completely unplanned. I knew he was going, but I wasn't out looking for him.

   Enough about the day to day of Stockholm. Onto the concert.

   I sat down about 10 of, and a crowd started forming quickly to my side. I glanced over and saw Saariaho. So, after she shook many hands, I hopped up and said a quick congrats and hello. Saariaho seemed pretty shy, and there was a crowd, so I wasn't going to draw her into a deep discussion. But, yes, I did "meet" her, though I doubt she'll remember my name (with all the hellos, names, and handshakes occurring).

   The show began with a quick chat with Saariaho about the four pieces. The pieces were Sept papillos for cello, Serenatas for cello, percussion, and piano, Duft for clarinet, and Je sens un deuxieme coeur for viola, cello, and piano. Karttunen played the cello throughout, while members of Norrbotten NEO, Robert Ek (clarinet), Kim Hellgren (viola), Marten Landstrom (piano), and Daniel Saur (percussion) made up the rest of the players.

    Saariaho explained the pieces simply: Sept papillons was written during rehearsal for L'amour de loins, her opera about Jaufre Rudel's possible (fictional?) love of the countess of Tripoli. She described it as her escape from all the drama, craziness, and huge amount of people. Serenatas was written using music that had been kicking around since sketching Sept papillons. They are a series of Serenades that can be played in any order. Duft for solo clarinet is based on music from an orchestral piece about the sense. Duft is German for smell, and it's her musical idea of the linking of smell and sound. Finally Je sens un deuxieme coeur (I feel a second heart) was inspired by Saariaho's second pregnancy, when she started thinking about how there was a second heart beating inside of her, beating very fast and slowing over 9 months. She mentioned polyrhythms as well as the programmatic aspect of the work.

     I won't embark on a piece by piece analysis or discussion. Instead, here are some general remarks about Saariaho's music. First off, three of the pieces had some sort of programmatic aspect. These aspects, if I had not been told about them in the first place, would not have come through in the music at all. In fact, even listening with the "insider information" straight from Saariaho, I did not hear any of the programmatic elements. Nothing in Duft made me think of smell, and nothing in Je sens un deuxieme coeur made me think of feeling two heartbeats during pregnancy. And, while these were impetuses and muses for Saariaho, I do not think I was supposed to hear anything overtly programmatic. Instead of listening for little signs, trying to tease out the program, I felt as though I was supposed to just relax and experience the music. And that is exactly what I did, letting the music wash over me.

    All of Saariaho's music takes a high level of virtuosity, especially the two solo works. Karttunen and Ek did fabulously on their ends, performing at high technical and musical levels. Saariaho's music favors the delicate over the raucous, though she is not afraid to put together a forceful section. However, it was the moments of relaxation that intrigued me the most.

    Sadly, as the concert went on, I started hearing the same motives over and over again. I've always enjoyed Saariaho's music, though I was introduced to it fairly late in the game. I did notice in L'Amour de loin that long passages of time, an hour or so, would sit in nearly the same musical area, even as the action moved around the stage. In the opera, this created an odd sense of stasis along with movement. In an hours worth of chamber music, it didn't create such an intriguing effect. Instead, I was left thinking "What else can Saariaho do?" As passages died down, Saariaho would turn to trills between harmonics. If she wanted to keep energy going but pull back the sound, it'd be harmonic arpeggios. All the material seemed woven into the same large rich tapestry.

    While I love that tapestry--it's colourful yet subtle, harmonically and motivically interesting--it is the one tapestry. When I hear Saariaho break out the most is when she uses electronics. For instance, Lonh, a beautiful piece for voice and electronics (performed beautifully by Dawn Upshaw on a recording available from Naive or Ondine...and streaming on Naxos).

    This piece, to me, is Saariaho at her finest. But her style is so distinct, so incredibly tight and structured, that it seems like her pieces are coalescing into one piece.

     This isn't necessarily a problem. As I said before, if all the pieces are woven into one tapestry, it is a beautiful, subtle, wonderful tapestry. But something happens when you hear four pieces that sound so incredibly close together. The music got less interesting, lines blurred, and I found myself slipping.

     My experience is incredibly personal. I know other people that with such a program would be able to drift more fully into the music, experience the parallels, ride the waves of sound, and be quite happy. Maybe I am still a product of my generation, one that grows impatient with too much of the same. It's why writing a 25 minute drone piece was the hardest thing I've ever done (yes, worse than 2 operas), and why even during my favourite symphonies, I can start getting antsy halfway through a movement.

    That being said, I am excited for the Kungliga Filharmonikerna concert in October with Saariaho's Laterna Magica, Chopin's 2nd Piano Concert, and Schumann's 4th symphony. Funny, I just brought that symphony up in my last post. Heh.

     And I'm still quite happy I went to this concert. I had never gotten a chance to hear Saariaho's music live, and honestly the music didn't disappoint me. I think I disappointed myself. Instead of being able to just relax, and get washed away by the music, my mind instantly started analyzing all the similarities between the pieces. I couldn't even concentrate on the differences, just the similarities. So, now I've identified what I see to be a weakness in myself.

    Because music is about the experience of the moment, not to over think it.

     I listened to Lohn tonight when I got home after eating a giant smorgorsar (accents missing) and drinking an Orangina. In the quiet of my room, I was able to relax more and just let Saariaho's beautifully nuanced music flow over me. Hopefully, this mode of listening can stay with me--attentive, but not to the details, just to the music.

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