New York Philharmonic/Kaija Saariaho review staking out new terrain

Taking a trip to the cavernous art space and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the NY Phil explored Finnish composer Kaija Saariahos sumptuous, theatrical work

On this seasons opening night, back in September, the New York Philharmonics outgoing music director, Alan Gilbert, led a subtly activist gala program that included Gershwins Concerto in F. The performance was activist in nature because it allowed the nights soloist jazz virtuoso Aaron Diehl to improvise in and around Gershwins written part. And it was subtle because the chance-taking worked so thoroughly and elegantly: an experimentalism that didnt have to call attention to itself.

This week, the Philharmonic is making another of its periodic visits to one of New Yorks contemporary performance art palaces, the Park Avenue Armory. As usual, the venturesome quality of the trip outside Lincoln Center is being more explicitly underlined. This is the same site that saw Gilbert and the Philharmonics performance of Stockhausens multi-orchestral masterpiece Gruppen (along with spatial music by Mozart and Boulez). This time around, the organizational theme centered on the sumptuous textures of works by contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, in a concert conducted by Philharmonic composer-in-residence Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The composer-in-residence position is, by the way, another Gilbert innovation during his time at the Philharmonic. Perhaps the point is obvious, at this juncture, but it still bears repeating: in its stylistic flexibility and in its approach to repertoire, the Philharmonic is working at an unusually high level, under Gilberts directorship. The point was underlined again on Thursday nights opening performance, the first of a two-night stand at the Armory. Helping round out the sense of the gig as an event was video art accompaniment, supervised by director Pierre Audi (whos also prepping Rossinis Guillaume Tell at the Met).

Any worries that the visuals would detract from concentration on the music were quickly vanquished, during the short opening orchestral piece, Lumire et Pesanteur. The overture-length work, dedicated to Salonen, was cinematic enough on its own. Early on, a pretty, delicate figure moved from a trumpet to a flute, while waves of strange harmony morphed as they passed through the wider orchestra. (The visual counterpoint was just a smoky series of cloud-like nimbuses.)


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Soprano Jennifer Zetlan gave a haunting performance of the electronics-and-vocals piece Lonh. Photograph: Stephanie Berger./?Stephanie Berger Photography.

Later, a harp and vibraphone emerged on the other side of a tutti passage, shimmering seductively together. Saariahos music doesnt traffic in obvious sign-postings: theres rarely a strong pulse driving you toward a promised climax, or other similar clues to let you know when a turning point is in the offing. Big changes happen without much warning, and are all the more powerful for it.

The meatiest piece on the evenings program was Dom le Vrai Sens a 2010 piece that Ive loved on a recording from the Ondine label. Live, it took on a new power. Clarinetist Kari Kriikku is the go-to performer for this sort of music. (Saariaho wrote this concerto for him.) He has a control over piercing multiphonics that is the equal of his poise in more regular melodic passages. At the Armory, he started out playing behind the audience risers, his sound echoing around us.

Toward the beginning of the second movement, Kriikku appeared in the stalls, slow-marching (or dancing) his way toward the orchestra proper. Very Stockhausen-like, in its theatrical way. But the most important aspect the music was handled even better. The way he can extend the clarinets range is a perfect match for Saariahos unusual textures. He can place a note cleanly in front of a listener, and then agitate it into an unrecognizable, yet perfectly harmonized, sound.

By the time of the second movement, Saariahos writing depended less on these tricks building out longer melodies for the clarinet and the string section. As the half-hour piece unfolded, Kriikku advanced toward the other players. In subsequent movements he danced through the percussion section, then past Salonen while keeping perfect track of the brisk, thrashing lines in the fourth movement. At the close of this piece, the crowd wanted to give an ovation, but Salonen dampened this impulse with a pensive look and some quick fluttering of his fingers. The idea was to present all four of the Saariaho works without a break.

The result was a little bit of confusion on the part of the audience, with listeners grasping programs trying to figure out which piece was being performed. Given the generally ruminative quality of the Saariaho compositions on this 90-minute program, the lack of piece-specific closure might have contributed to some restlessness in the crowd.

Still, the final two works came off well. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan gave a haunting performance of the electronics-and-vocals piece Lonh. (Her live singing doubled a recorded part by the soprano <a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Dawn Upshaw, in a striking complication of the soloists role.) The final work, 2012s Circle Map, was only slightly less impressive as its recorded recitations of Rumis poetry sounded less well integrated into the overall writing. But even here, there were textures of uncommon beauty and imagination. Salonen had a clear sense of each piece, and the Philharmonic players never sounded anything but confident in Saariahos prismatic, provocative music.

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