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The Fabulous Finns: BSO Welcomes Saariaho; New CDs By Salonen

BOSTON — Ears open! That’s the name adopted by a group of young Finnish composers in the 1970s, a name that could apply to any group of musical young turks who think they have something new to say. Most of them don’t usually pass the test of time so it’s rather amazing when a whole school has produced three of today’s greatest composers – Magnus Lindberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho.

Kaija Saariaho

The BSO performs Kaija Saariaho’s “Six Circles.” (Maarit Kytöharju, Fimic)

The first two have a wide cachet in America. Salonen did an incredible job as the former head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Lindberg won acclaim as the artist in residence for the New York Philharmonic. Saariaho is a more international figure as evidenced by the fact that the Boston Symphony Orchestra is among six orchestras, each from a different country, who have commissioned “Circle Map,” which will be featured through Tuesday at the BSO. The adventurous program conducted by Juanjo Mena also features a rousing performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 and the intense if playful Gil Shaham playing Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto.

For many the debut of a new piece elicits more of an “ears closed” response than “ears open,” but that shouldn’t be the case with Saariaho and her Finnish friends. Some of the words used to describe their music are ravishing, lustrous, dramatic, emotional – words not always attributed to contemporary works.

Each studied at the Sibelius Academy and while none of their compositions look back to his melodic romanticism none of them eschews it, either. Whether there’s any correlation between the gorgeous Finnish countryside or not, there’s a direct appeal to their work, particularly their more recent work, that is always emotional and smart without being overly cerebral.

Saariaho is more known for her mixture of electronic elements with orchestral effects, triggered in “Circle Map” by a keyboard that’s beautifully integrated into the orchestra playing.

There’s also more of a theatrical, maybe even spiritual element, to her work as witnessed by the electronic use of poems by Rumi, the Persian poet and theologian. Saariaho’s writing for voice is beguiling – witness “Château de l’âme” sung by Dawn Upshaw and the DVD of the opera, “L’Amour de Loin,” both conducted by Salonen.

Here’s a taste of the latter with Monica Groop and Upshaw:

Peter Sellars, who directed “L’Amour” and never one for understatement, says,

“The life-force of Kaija Saariaho’s music is its feast of sensory awakening and shocking emotional nakedness. A raw honesty permeates the atmosphere of mystery. This music is an obsessive, immersive and magical weather system bringing ecstasy, cleansing, and renewal.”

I’d settle for any one of those three. While I wouldn’t go as far as Sellars, “Circle Map” is a piece I’d love to hear again, a warm Zen bath that at different times conjures Takemitsu, Bartok and Boulez, though always accessible. The BSO is still in great shape, speaking Saariaho’s language as fluently as it did Dvorak’s or Britten’s. Credit, of course, to Mena, always in control of the proceedings even as Shaham advanced on him during the Britten like Keith Richards moving in on Mick Jagger. Or Kramer on Seinfeld.

If Saariaho is theatrical, at least in her writing for voice, Salonen is the most cinematic of the Finns. In fact, one of my favorite recordings of his is of Bernard Herrmann’s film scores for Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese and Francois Truffaut.

And two of my favorite discs of the year are recent releases conducted by Salonen for DG, the world premiere of Shostakovich’s “Orango” and his own compositions on “Out of Nowhere.” I can hear some of Hermann’s ominous chords in his music along with Debussy’s impressionism. (Yeah, he hated the term. Too bad for him.)

This is the beginning of one of those pieces, the violin concerto, with Leila Josefowicz, who also plays on the recording, though it’s a different performance:

Salonen left the LA Philharmonic to concentrate on composing, but if he ever wanted to go back to directing an orchestra he and Robert Spano would be my top choices for the BSO (admittedly, I haven’t heard some of the candidates for the job). But both these discs are thrilling and I’d love to see more of him in Boston.

Let’s be happy for any of the fabulous Finns we have in town. Saariaho’s premiere should be one of the signature events of the musical season.

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