From Sound and Fury to Graal théâtre, a compelling sonic ritual with Tami Pohjola, the FRSO and Sakari Oramo

Violinist Tami Pohjola, condutor Sakari Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Helsinki Music Centre after a stunning performance of Kaija Saariaho’s Graal théâtre.
© Jari Kallio 

The ritual of performance is an intriguing phenomenon. Even with the COVID-19 restrictions upon us, the essential ingredients of a live performance prevail. Interestingly, some aspects of this ritual are even enhanced by the various safety measures applied.

Seated with safety distances, with less contact to the other members of the audience, the interaction between the stage and each listener becomes more personal. In similar manner, with smaller forces at play onstage, the dialogue between the musicians, and the conductor alike, is transformed into the realm chamber music. 

Meanwhile, the iconic concert scheme of an overture, a concerto and a symphony endures. While it is refreshing, and essential, to smash this mold every now and then, the concert with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Helsinki Music Centre on Wednesday demonstrated that innovative programming can be worked out within a traditional scheme too. 

With the FRSO Honorary Conductor Sakari Oramo on the podium, the evening was augured with Anna Clyne’s Sound and Fury (2019) for chamber orchestra. Commissioned and premiered by Pekka Kuusisto and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, launching Clyne’s tenure as the orchestra’s Associate Composer, the fifteen-minute Sound and Fury salutes two masters of yore, Joseph Haydn and William Shakespeare

On a musical level, Sound and Fury stems from Haydn’s Symphony in C Major, Hob. I:60 Il Distratto (1774-75), which Clyne studied in detail, picking up rhythmic gestures, harmonic progressions and melodic ideas to be used as the source material. In the manner of Stravinsky, the musical material is reworked and developed within the composers own framework, thus resulting in an original work with fascinating, dream-like associations. 

Sound and Fury is scored for a classical orchestra, with the inclusion of a five-octave marimba and bells. The music bursts into being with rapid string cascades setting the pace. Joined by winds, brass and marimba, the music builds up to the first tutti section. 

From the orchestral fabric, the ear picks Haydnesque musical items, such as brass fanfares, woodwind textures and string lines. Following the opening, the music cools down to a haunting soundscape, evoking a Scottish landscape of Shakespeares’s Macbeth (1606).

The opening material returns, with the orchestra speeding up again. With soaring melodic lines, the music becomes airborne, as if the wind in the moors. A quote from Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943) sneaks in, before the orchestral fabric lands on an achingly beautiful elegy, accompanied by a spoken quote from Macbeth’s last soliloquy.    

With a whirlwind-of-a-coda, Sound and Fury is brought to its gripping close. Performed with vigor and lyricism by the FRSO and Oramo, the evening was set into intense motion.   

The FRSO and Honoray Conductor Sakari Oramo onstage at the Helsinki Music Centre.
© Jari Kallio 

Kaija Saariaho’s masterpiece-of-a-violin-concerto Graal théâtre (1994) is the most extraordinary thing. The title refers to a book of the same name by Jacques Roubaud, revisiting the dramaturgy of the legends of the Round Table. With her choice of title, Saariaho refers to the ritualistic nature of a performance, especially in a concerto setting, and its repercussions for a composer.

The two-movement concerto is dedicated to Gidon Kremer, who premiered the piece with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen at the 1995 Proms, a performance subsequently released on CD by Sony Classical. Since its first performance, Graal théâtre has since become one of the most successful contemporary concertos, and deservedly so. 

The score exists in two guises. In 1997, the composer revoked the original orchestration into a wondrous rescoring for chamber orchestra. The chamber version was premiered and recorded (for Ondine) by John Storgårds and Avanti!, conducted by Hannu Lintu.   

It is hard, and also pointless, to choose a favourite between the two versions. Rather, both scores convey special charm of their own, from the glowing textures of the symphonic version to the crystal-clear intimacy of the chamber version. 

Graal is fierce”, said Jennifer Koh in our discussion on Saariaho’s music at the Summer Sounds festival in Porvoo last year. In a way, that short statement perfectly captures the essence of Graal théâtre. Even though a lot of it is delicately scored, the emotional intensity is ever tangible throughout the score.

The soloist’s extended incantation opens the first movement, with delicato punctuations from triangle, chorales, bass drum, timpani and harp, later joined by Chinese tom-tom. Saariaho’s writing for violin is luminous, with traditional and extended playing techniques blending together in an organic manner, resulting in utmost expressivity, often carried out in the most sublime ways. 

The srtings enter from bar 32 on, starting with a pianissimo double bass beat and climbing all the the way to the sforzato first violins at bar 66. Coloured by woodwind trills, the textures intensify as the movement enters the più mosso, energico section. 

A wondrous scenery of interactions between the solo violin and the orchestra ensues, as the first movement ritual unravels. On the closing page the glimmering solo line shines through the ppp hue of the string ensemble, evaporating in the distance. 

The Impetuoso second movement is launched by the soloist alone, playing rapid, descending four-note patterns, marked furioso. After thirteen bars, the first pair of short interjections is heard from the orchestra. After further nine bars, the soloist is allowed a brief rest as a short orchestral interlude is heard. 

A tableau of vivid sonic imagery is unveiled, clad in the most extraordinary textures and harmonic colours. Following this intense, multi-layered theatre of sound, the orchestral fabric becomes ever more transparent, until only the last few threads of accompaniment hover in the air. With a single echo from triangle, the solo violin brings Graal théâtre to its magical close.

Violinist Tami Pohjola. © Apollo Artistit

With the astonishing Tami Pohjola as soloist, Graal théâtre was given a fabulous performance. Her compelling mastery over the solo line, both incredibly nuanced and tremendously expressive, was absolutely spellbinding. With Oramo at the helm, the FRSO musicians delivered a stunning sonic realization of Saariaho’s splendid chamber orchestra scoring. 

So intense was the experience, that even now, days after, these astounding sonorities are solidly etched in memory, as if the performance had never ended. A formidable ritual recreating itself in the solitude of the mind.   

Closing the evening with a full circle, Sergei Prokofieff’s teasing homage to Haydn, the Classical Symphony (1917) was heard. Prokofieff’s first symphonic endeavor seems to be on its way to become a trademark COVID-19-era piece, given that over the past couple of weeks both Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic and Santtu-Matias Rouvali and the Tampere Philharmonic have also included it in their programmes

And why not, for the Classical Symphony is a joyous thing to hear. Scored for a genuinely classical orchestra, with two sonata-allegros framing a lovely larghetto and a brilliant gavotte, the fifteen-minute symphony is a dazzling re-imagination of Haydn, with its modern origins apparent throughout. 

With Oramo and the FRSO, the eighteenth and twentieth centuries idioms were fused together in the most uplifting way, yielding to an absolutely delightful performance, that would have made both Prokofiev and Haydn proud. Light and airy, bright and bittersweet, the score was resounded with spirited musicality and exemplary teamwork. 

After an evening like this, one was feeling simply so lucky to have been a part of the ritual of live performance there at the Music Centre. 

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra 

Sakari Oramo, conductor

Tami Pohjola, violin 

Anna Clyne: Sound and Fury (2019) for chamber orchestra

Kaija Saariaho: Graal théâtre (1994/1997) for violin and chamber orchestra

Sergei Prokofieff: Classical Symphony in D (Symphony No. 1), Op. 25 (1917) for orchestra

Music Centre, Helsinki

Wednesday 23 September, 8 pm

 © Jari Kallio 

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