Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Saariaho: Lumière et pesanteur
Saariaho: D'om le vrai sens
Saariaho: Circle Map
Kari Krikku: Clarinet
Jennifer Zetlan: Soprano
Jean-Baptiste Barrière: Video and Projection Designer
My Carnegie Hall season now well underway, on Friday night I kicked off my New York Philharmonic season at the Park Avenue Armory, of all places, with an "evening of spatial works by Kaija Saariaho" that would be conducted by her frequent collaborator and fellow Finn – and NY Phil's Composer-In-Residence – Esa-Pekka Salonen, and included extra elements such as electronics, projections and guest artists. I was frankly not quite sure what I was getting myself into, but I was very much looking forward to becoming better acquainted with her impressive œuvre in a totally immersive 90-minute experience that would consist of four separate pieces performed sans interruption or any other distractions.
Upon entering the Armory's former drill hall I could tell that we were really in for an unusual affair as the orchestra was placed in the middle of the cavernous space and surrounded about two-thirds by rows of legless chairs on the floor, which themselves were surrounded by stadium-style bleachers, which made all audience members face the orchestra and the large screen hanging behind it. After the hall had filled up to capacity, we were all eagerly off to more or less unknown territories.
The short opening number, Lumière et pesanteur (Light and heaviness), readily set the tone with subtle sounds and delicate colors slowly evolving in hazy stretches that were occasionally punctuated by discreet outbursts. Salonen’s poised and precise conducting significantly contributed in highlighting the ethereal quality of the composition that was gifted to him in 2009 after Saariaho had heard him conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in her oratorio La Passion de Simone. The accompanying videos were appropriately abstract, and also repetitive after a while, in all their fancy swirling and twirling, and the combination of music and visuals efficiently created a mystical atmosphere that would remain for the rest of the evening.
Inspired by the six medieval tapestries constituting the renowned series "The Lady and the Unicorn", each one being named after the five senses and a mysterious sixth one called "À mon seul désir" (To my only desire), D'om le vrai sens, which alludes to the true meaning of mankind, was mostly memorable by the stupendous clarinet solos performed by the no less stupendous Finnish clarinetist Kari Kriikku, the work’s dedicatee. Throughout most of the piece, he playfully walked, ran, jumped and pranced around the orchestra with the vigor and bounciness of a unicorn, occasionally engaging other musicians who responded in kind, some of them even getting up and slowly walking away from their seats during the last movement. The projections were visually pleasant in their detailed study the tapestries’ intricacies and nicely expanded the musical exploration.
The next piece, Lohn, for soprano and electronics, from 1996, had the distinct advantage of featuring soprano Jennifer Zetlan, an artist whose penchant for challenging and wide-ranging projects is decidedly unwavering. And she certainly was the bright light of this conceptually fascinating but actually uneven endeavor based on a medieval Provençal poem about love from afar recorded in Occitan, French and English. Recordings of birds, wind and rain had been electronically processed with the three narrations, which resulted in sound effects sometimes intriguing, sometimes as blurry as the projected face of the live soloist, which itself was often competing with many exotic images on the busy screen. Her voice, however, was as clear, luminous and expressive as ever, and she carried herself with remarkable dignity as she slowly circulated among the silent orchestra.
Circle Map, written for orchestra and electronics in 2012, concluded the evening with more shimmers, contemplation and nebulousness. The performance combined the reading of six quatrains by 13th century Persian poet Rumi in their original language, the playing of the orchestra deftly in tune with the voice’s inflections, and videos showing the poems being written along with more abstract images. The subtle differences among the short movements were beautifully highlighted by the orchestra, which finally got a chance to play with more force and presence while still carefully maintaining the de rigueur meditative mood.
As the audience was finally allowed to clap, the applauds were unquestionably sincere but somehow subdued, before we all quietly left the Armory, as if we were hesitant to burst the otherworldly but comfortable bubble we had been kept in and get back to the loud and fast-paced reality of Friday night in New York City.