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Notes from Istanbul: Saariaho World Premiere

The Borusan Culture & Arts Foundation, the artistic and charitable offshoot of the Borusan Holding Company has a “Music House” on İstanbul’s İstiklal Avenue, the downtown pedestrian zone in the Pera district, custom built to show off its modern art collection, but also the home to contemporary classical music. Artists and ensembles are invited to fill the six storey building with roof top terrace with sounds, and works are commissioned to make them unique sounds. The latest such work was penned by Kaija Saariaho: Frises for violin and electronics, inspired by Odilon Redon’s painted friezes

Richard Schmoucler, violinist in the Orchestre de Paris, first came in touch with Saariaho’s music during the Paris performances of L’Amour de loin. That led to a greater immersion in her sound world and finally, through the Borusan commission, to Frises, which Schmoucler specifically envisioned as part of a program including Bach’s Chaconne and Ysaÿe’s Second Sonata. On Friday, November 2nd, he finally got to play it, with Mme. Saariaho at the mixing board pushing buttons and sliding sliders with fierce concentration.

available at Amazon
K.Saariaho, Orchestral Works,

After a long, mono-tonous [sic], quiet first movement, Frises develops and blooms into something quite beautiful, with long glassy marimba-like harmonies, echoes and halos. Schmoucler is asked to engage in self-recording himself at set intervals, then re-playing with himself, after his recorded alter ego's sound has been sent back with more or less manipulation along the way. The third of four movements, Pavage, is the most engaged, frantically chasing little echo-y runs up and down the instrument, and dotted with violent pizzicatos. It thrashes onward and forward until it finally runs out of steam and disemboguing into the Frise grise, which concludes this aural immersion with something akin to whale-song. If Saariaho’s works are often monochrome and austere; this is a joyously lively and colorful, thoroughly engaging treat.

The earlier works—Ysaÿe’s Sonata and the whole Second Partita of Bach, were a nice setup, very decently performed. In the Ysaÿe I wasn’t keen on the pauses or the terraced dynamics that make so much of the work’s Prelude. It wasn’t the cleanest performance, either, but then the Sonata (which Schmoucler finished with an uncommonly excellent Les furies) is a tough cookie to open the concert with. Even more so in a concert consisting entirely of difficult, unforgiving works that keep the performer out on a limb at all times. Schmoucler’s instrument shone in the Bach with a character-rich, dark, viola-like tone and resonance, even if the inherent necessity to play the work at hand, which Schmoucler had spoken about passionately just the night before, sadly eluded me. Until the Saariaho piece, at least.

See also Johannes Baumann's interview with Kaija Saariaho (video & transcript)