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Finnish Composer Bursts Some of Her Own Myths


One of the perils of conducting a public interview with a composer is that you are likely to have your deeply held beliefs about your interviewee’s work shrugged off. That happened to the composer George E. Lewis during his interview with Kaija Saariaho during a Kaija SaariahoComposer Portraits concert at the Miller Theater on Sunday evening. Mr. Lewis observed that some of Ms. Saariaho’s music struck him as a kind of synesthesia: that the sound of her music seemed almost to invoke pictures.

«It is not my objective to make pictures», Ms. Saariaho calmly responded. She invariably begins with an idea that she thinks of as a “sonic image,” she said, and works from there.

But music is a supremely subjective art, and this Finnish composer’s demurrals aside, Mr. Lewis’s experience of her work probably mirrors that of many listeners. Her titles, after all, are invariably picturesque, and her scoring is steeped in color and texture. She is particularly fond of sparkling percussion — xylophones, triangles and marimbas have as much to do in her music as the strings — and of bright flute lines, punctuated with overblowing techniques. Tremolando string figures create eerily tense atmospheres or gently hazy ones, depending on the dynamics and balances.
And in the earliest of the four works on the program, «Lichtbogen» (Lightbow, 1986), Ms. Saariaho’s inspiration seems to have been visual. She is quoted in the program notes saying that the movement of the Northern Lights suggested ideas about the work’s form and language.

Pictorial or not, Ms. Saariaho’s music is consistently exciting and eventful, and the International Contemporary Ensemble, conducted by Brad Lubman, played a compact but persuasive selection of her works. Claire Chase gave a sizzling account of the solo flute line in «Terrestre» (2002), a chamber arrangement of the closing section of Ms. Saariaho’s flute concerto, «Aile du Songe» («Wing of the Dream»). The flutist has plenty to do here. The writing is speedy and chromatic, and demands occasional vocalization as well as close interplay with the percussion. At times the many things going on at once gave the score an almost cinematic character.

«Solar» (1992), for chamber orchestra, is less kinetic than «Terrestre» but no less vivid. Everything in it seems to radiate from an opening chord: a loud, percussive wallop that quickly gives way to gentle waves of tactile and sometimes soft-edged sound. Harmonically the work revolves around a central core that seems to change very little, but the shifting textures on the music’s surface keep this static harmony from sounding dull.

Ms. Saariaho achieves a similar effect in “Lichtbogen.” The musicians begin on a single pitch, which remains steady as attacks, articulation and textures change. After a moment, instrumental lines veer off on their own, but they wander quite far afield, with electronic sound, quick string ascents and deftly combined piano and pitched percussion producing a spacey effect.

«Graal Théâtre» (1997), an explosive violin concerto, with Jennifer Koh as the soloist, closed the concert. The most substantial of these four scores (though «Terrestre» comes close) and the most harmonically dense, this 30-minute concerto combines visceral power and sheer beauty. Ms. Koh gave a stunning, high-energy account of the almost continuous solo line, with solid support from Mr. Lubman and the ensemble players.

The next Composer Portrait is devoted to Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music,” on Feb. 5 at the Miller Theater at Columbia University, Broadway at 116th Street, Morningside Heights; (212) 854-7799, millertheatre.com.

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