Kaija Saariaho Takes Manhattan

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This year Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall. She has produced a vast and much-admired body of work, including the operas L’Amour de loin, which premiered a few years ago and has established itself as a modern classic, and Adriana Mater. A recording of L’Amour de loin won the Grammy Award in 2011. With her countryman Magnus Lindberg having recently done a three-year tenure as composer-in-residence of the New York Philharmonic, Finland has had a musical presence in New York that is disproportionately large. But no less welcome because of that.

Finland, population 5.2 million is, per capita, surely the most music-oriented nation in the world. Austria, whose population is about 2 million larger, has an older tradition and amazing festivals everywhere. But, in my experience, no nation has such a complete relationship with classical music as does Finland. I have visited elementary schools there, and marvel that all children have music as a central part of their education, including the ability to read music. Should it surprise you that Finland and South Korea are the two nations in the world with the highest level of academic achievement?

On my first visit, a few years ago, the hot debate in Finland was something an American would not comprehend -- should another concert hall be built in Helsinki, a city that already had more than one excellent place for making music? As it happens, it was decided to build the hall, the Helsinki Music Centre, which opened late last summer.  The entire country is full of beautiful concert halls (Helsinki is the World Capital of Design for 2012) that resound with orchestras, chamber music groups, instrumental and vocal soloists. New works seem to premiere all the time, written by the large group of active composers who receive government and popular support.

Along with conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, Saariaho and Lindberg are perhaps the leading figures of their generation (all were born in the 1950s) and have commitments of all kinds. There is also Osmo Vänska, who is music director of the Minnesota Orchestra and the foremost proponent of the music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), Finland’s most famous composer.

The Sibelius Academy, named for the composer, is one of the world’s great music schools and just about every Finnish musician of note has been there. For many years the head of the conducting program was Leif Segerstam (born 1944) who has composed 253 symphonies as of January 2012. Among living composers, the grand old man of Finnish music is Einojuhani Rautavaara (born 1928), who also studied at the Sibelius Academy. Much of his music has been recorded by Segerstam.

Finland is full amazing young musicians. One to watch is Ville Matvejeff (born 1986) who already has had his symphonic music and ballets performed, works as an active conductor in Sweden and Finland, and heads the Heinävesi music festival. Recently he was the piano partner to Karita Mattila, Finland’s most famous singer, on a concert tour of Europe and Asia.

The president of the Sibelius Academy is Gustav Djupsjöbacka, who recently came to New York. One of his missions was a series of meetings at the Juilliard School on an important collaboration in 2013 that will be announced when all details are in place. Last week I attended a luncheon organized by the Finnish-American Chamber of Commerce and was honored to share a table with Saariaho and Djupsjöbacka. They held  a public conversation and I also was glad to talk to them further on my own.

The number of performances her works receive everywhere is remarkable. In the next few months her pieces will heard in New York, St. Louis, Cleveland and in Norway, Poland, Germany, Canada and, of course, Finland. As part of her residency at Carnegie Hall, Saariaho does master classes, works with performers and will have 5 or 6 concerts whose programs are in part or entirely based on her music. The Cleveland Orchestra plays her Lanterna Magica at Carnegie on May 23.

The St. Louis Symphony will be at Carnegie Hall on March 10 for a performance of Quatre Instants, a song cycle composed for Karita Mattila, who will perform. Here Mattila sings “Parfum d’Instant,” one of the four songs in the cycle, in Stockholm on 2008, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. Here is an interesting video backstage at the newly-opened Helsinki Music Centre in September 2011. There are conversations with Saariaho, conductor Sakari Oramo and soprano Karen Vourc’h, who flew in that day in her wedding dress to fill in at the last minute for an ailing Karita Mattila in Quatre Instants.

At Carnegie Hall there will soon be Saariaho programs, classes and performances (March 5, 9, 11, 12) at which she will preside. She will also be working on a new commission to be premiered in November.

Here are some highlights from Saaraiho’s recent lunch conversation: Her opinion on how to work with students without “disturbing” them: “I can discuss technical issues and speak from my own experience. Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) visited the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki  and was asked, 'Do you think of audiences when you compose?' He replied, "I am the first audience of my music. I try to take distance from my music and hear it as an audience member.”

What is the most challenging thing about writing an opera?  "There are so many aspects of an opera to think about. The duration of the work means that it takes years to create it.  My second opera, Adriana Mater, took three years to complete. A very important thing is finding the right partners to create the opera and the right singers to perform it. When I wrote L’Amour de loin I felt I was living with these people. In that opera, the troubadour dies. As I wrote the music I saw his death coming and, when he did die, I thought to myself, 'Whoa, there’s one gone!'"

Given that she composes music in several languages, including Finnish and French, I wondered whether she writes music differently depending on the language. “It would be quite natural that my music change with the languages. The orchestration certainly changes when the language does. When the English National Opera did L’Amour de loin in English rather than the original French, I found it quite disturbing.”

She is now involved in training and mentoring younger composers. "I think composing can be learned. That is, the techniques can be learned. What happens in the mind is something else very personal. But every composer with good or bad ideas needs technical training. My advice to them is to write the music you want to write that corresponds to your personality. Then it is your music."



Karita Mattila sings “Parfum d’Instant,” one of the four songs in the Quatre Instants song cycle, in Stockholm on 2008, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting.


Conversations with Saariaho, conductor Sakari Oramo and soprano Karen Vourc’h backstage at the newly-opened Helsinki Music Centre in September 2011.