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Kaija Saariaho @ Phillips

The Leading European Composers series at the Phillips Collection hosted a composer truly worthy of the name on Thursday evening. We have been admirers of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's music for some years, particularly the operas L'Amour de Loin and Adriana Mater but also the instrumental music we have heard. Prizes have been coming her way, and when rewards line up with merit, it is heartening news. She came to Washington with a group of young musicians from the Canadian Opera Company's Ensemble Studio, with whom she had worked on a program of her music in Toronto last year.

The program brought together mostly vocal music, much of it connected in some way with L'Amour de Loin, beginning with Lonh (From Afar, 1996), set to texts by the troubadour Jaufré Rudel, the opera's main character. Soprano Jacqueline Woodley was incandescent in this stately cantillation, the mystical sounds of her voice echoed in the electronics (assisted by Darren Copeland), a combination of recorded sounds that gave the feel of temple bells in a sort of garden. One of the highlights of the Phillips series is hearing the composer speak about the music being performed, and Saariaho spoke about the musical influence she took from the modal melodies of Rudel, which she noted down from a manuscript of his poetry in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Woodley brought many of the same strengths -- flexibility, surety of intonation, impassioned tone -- to Quatre Instants, a song cycle Saariaho composed for Karita Mattila in 2002 (the same performer for whom she wrote her most recent opera, Émilie). The poetry, in a French text by Amin Maalouf, Saariaho's regular collaborator, is a semi-operatic monologue by a woman tormented by memories of a doomed but ineluctable union. The opening song's image of the woman as a boat adrift is echoed in the piano accompaniment, with an obsessively rocking half-step that pervades the piece. The second song introduces the line "Le remords me brûle" (I burn with remorse), repeated obsessively in a half-spoken ostinato, itself answered by sighs on an open "Ah!" vowel. The piano bristles with repeated motifs, like anxious trills, repeated notes, flurrying patterns, and (perhaps too many) disorienting glissandi. It is a sound world unlike any other.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, At Phillips, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho exposes the human psyche (Washington Post, February 23)
The most straightforward piece was a ballade for piano, composed for Emanuel Ax in 2005, in a style that seemed in line with Chopin's take on the genre, with a melancholy melody spun out of murmuring accompaniment figures and spectral pedal effects, performed effectively by pianist Elizabeth Upchurch. The final piece on the program took us back to what sounded like an earlier style for Saariaho, a section of Grammaire des rêves, from 1988, in which two interlaced voices alternately sing and speak overlapping excerpts of poetry by Sylvia Plath. Soprano Mireille Asselin and mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb took Saariaho's description of the piece -- as a depiction of a person split in two, with interlocking thoughts jumbled together -- to heart, adding movements that made them come together at one music stand, clasp one another as they gasped for breath, and move apart again.

We will be back at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon for the recital by pianist Alexander Melnikov (February 24, 4 pm) playing music by Schumann, Scriabin, and Prokofiev.

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