Sunday, November 01, 2015

A Musical Week 3: Left Coast Chamber Ensemble Plays Saariaho

The Paris-based Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is in the Bay Area for over a month giving a series of lectures at UC Berkeley, and the musical community has stepped up with a series of concerts featuring her compositions. Last Monday it was the the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble at the SF Conservatory, which began with a fascinating interview of Kaija by Kate Sheeran, who is Provost and Dean at the school.

Saariajo talked about studying to be a singer and arriving for a recital where not a note would come out of her mouth. "I think my body was telling me this wasn't the path I was supposed to be on. Soon after, I became a composer, it's one of those decisions that chooses you, usually around your early twenties," she noted, rather as if it was the onset of schizophrenia. She went to the Conservatory in Helsinki, but got tired of being the one "girl composer" and went to Germany to study, which opened a new world even though she felt stifled by the strict serialism dogma of her instructors. She then encountered the music of French "spectral" composers like Gerard Grisey and joined them in Paris in the early 1980s to work on music that combined acoustic and electronic elements at IRCAM.

"The computers were huge, taking up whole walls, and they were very slow. You'd finish a bit of work, put it into the computer, go to a movie, return and program a bit more, then go to sleep, and return when it was finished." Another turning point came with her discovery by director/impresario Peter Sellars who put her together with the French Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf to write operas, rather like Sellars joined John Adams and Alice Goodman for Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. "Amin and I were very polite and formal when we first started working together [they've created four operas]. The biggest challenge was that Amin is a novelist and not used to deadlines, whereas I had to have a piece done for a set performance date, but we now work closely and well together."

The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble concert was titled With You in Mind, referring to the fact that all the pieces were written for particular performers to play. The evening started with a world premiere by Oakland composer John MacCallum for Stacey Pelinka on flute and Leighton Fong on cello, enhanced with electronics. It was a short, interesting work that was eventually overshadowed by Saariaho's piece for the same forces later in the concert.

Pianist Eric Zivian joined bass clarinetist Jerome Simas for a transcription of Saint-Saens' The Swan, followed by a sequel where The Swan Takes Flight written by Zivian for Simas.

The first half of the concert ended with Poulenc's 1957 Flute Sonata written for Jean-Pierre Rampal who was sort of the Lang Lang or Yo Yo Ma of the 1950s through 1970s. The sonata was once ubiquitous on classical music stations, and is one of Poulenc's most successful pieces. Stacey Pelinka did a fine job playing the flute, but Eric Zivian pounded the piano accompaniment so loudly that the music was destroyed.

Two of Kaija Saariaho's most trusted collaborators in Paris are the cellist Anssi Karttunen and the flautist Camilla Holtenga, who have both appeared at UC Berkeley in concerts surrounding Saariaho's residency. On Monday, it was cellist Leighton Fong playing Sept papillons, seven miniatures characterizing butterflies in motion. They were incredible, and so was the performance. Saariaho has a form of synaesthesia, where music triggers her senses into colors, tastes, and touch. Listening to Sept papillons you could almost do the same.

This was followed by the short Miroirs for flute and cello, which was originally written for a CD-ROM that allows you to recompose the piece yourself "by combining pre-defined fragments." It would have been fun to hear a couple of different versions, but the Saariaho template was rich and fun. I didn't stay for the Brahms Clarinet Trio because I was afraid Zivian would play the piano too loud again, and according to Stephen Smoliar, everything was fine until the final movement when Zivian did just that.

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