Lunchtime with Kaija Saariaho

Today’s lunchtime concert in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre was of a series of works by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho whose opera L’Amour de Loin opens on Thursday at the Four Seasons Centre. The composer was in attendance and introduced each of the pieces.

First up were four songs for soprano and piano on texts by the Finnish poet Leino. These were performed by Carla Huhtanen and Adam Sherkin. We were told that the texts were essentially untranslatable but the English versions we got were good enough to see how the mood of the music fit the piece, if not to make any real judgement of the relationship between words and music. I found the music evocative and quite complex but not difficult to listen to. It’s certainly well beyond being mere mood music. They are quite intense pieces and place pretty heavy demands on both pianist and singer. In particular the soprano has many loud, sustained high notes to cope with and some awkward intervals. Huhtanen managed this with comfort. I can’t comment on her Finnish though I guess I can say, given that the last time I heard her sing was in Serbian, that odd languages don’t seem to worry her. Sherkin seemed well in control at the keyboard.

Next up were two contrasting piano pieces played by Sherkin. Both demanded some rather athletic playing. The first, Prelude, I found the more meditative of the two. I zoned out at times (but in a good way). The second piece, Ballade, I found myself getting more analytical about. The composer explained that it was a more narratively structured piece and I did get that sense. Sherkin was really good on both pieces.

The final contribution was Tag des Jahrs for choir and electronics. It’s a setting of four poems by Hölderlin on the theme of the seasons. This was performed by the Elmer Iseler Singers who, besides the electronic tape, got “help” from a concrete saw on University Avenue. For me this was the least successful piece. The music was quite evocative but occasionally seemed to be slipping into mood music territory. It probably wasn’t helped by the performance. I thought the German diction was distinctly sub-standard. They might as well have been singing in Finnish.

I’m glad to have heard some of Saariaho’s music ahead of seeing L’Amour de Loin next week and it’s always good to hear the composer’s thoughts on works of this type. There’s another concert of vocal works by Saariaho on Thursday. Here’s the programme. I shall try to be there.

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