Guiding light – Reflecting Musica nova Helsinki 2021

Nicolas Hodges and the Helsinki Philharmonic, conducted by André de Ridder performing Simon Sten-Andersen’s Piano Concerto at Musica nova Helsinki. © Maarit Kytöharju

Successfully navigating through ever-evolving pandemic counter-measures, the nine-day Musica nova Helsinki festival appeared as beacon in the midst of all the uncertainty brought upon the performing arts by Covid. 

Mostly conceived as free online concerts, reaching circa 31000 viewers, this year’s festival provided a fascinating cross-section of all those diverse realms labelled contemporary music. In addition to streamed events, the festival programme included Helsinki Polytopes, a series of sound installations throughout Helsinki, including a bridge underpass and a listening room sauna. 

As the Musica nova Artistic Director André de Ridder outlined in our interview, the Greek-French composer, architect and mathematician Iannis Xenakis was featured in the festival not so much as a focus composer, but as a guiding light and inspiration. 

Focused or not, some noteworthy entries from the Xenakis oeuvre were featured in the course of the festival, including an intense performance of Voile (1995) by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra strings, conducted by Anna-Maria Helsing, alongside À Hélène (1977) by Helsinki Chamber Choir and Nils Schweckendieck and Plekto (1993) with the members of the Zagros Ensemble, as well as a thrilling realization of La Légende d’Eer (1977) by Marianne Decoster-Taivalkoski, Alejandro Montes de Oca and Alejandro Olarte.

On a personal level, the most compelling of the twentieth century modernist classics featured on the festival programme was, without question, Edgar Varèse’s Déserts (1950-54), rivetingly performed by the members of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under de Ridder.

Scored for winds, brass and percussion, with interpolated electronic soundscapes, Déserts builds up to an awe-inspiring tableau of the very idea of a desert, no so much as a geographical entity, but as a state of mind. Hovering between utopia and dystopia, Déserts made a lasting impression with its well-conceived sonic architecture and quasi-tactile intensity. 

Another classic, conceived some forty years later, Steve Reich’s City Life (1994-95) got an inspired outing from Tapiola Sinfonietta and Roland Kluttig. Jointly commissioned by Ensemble InterContemporain, Ensemble Modern and London Sinfonietta, Reich’s five-movement score combines pre-recorded noises, sampled from the streets of New York by the composer, with the sonic palette of a chamber orchestra. 

Scored for two pianos, two vibraphones, two samplers, percussion, six winds and string quintet, City Life is built upon an intricate counterpoint, where street noises and musical lines merge, giving rise to some fascinating sonorities. 

The performance was accompanied by a video projection, combining various scenes from urban life into a cityscape. Based on the snippets appearing on the online stream, some of its ingredients were imaginatively reworked, whereas others succumbed into lukewarm Koyaanisqatsi

Interestingly, perhaps the most fascinating new(ish) pieces heard at concert settings happened to be takes on the concerto genre. 

Premiered at the Donaueschinger Musiktage, Simon Steen-Andersen’s Piano Concerto (2014) takes as its starting point the sound- and video recording of a grand piano falling onto a concrete floor from a height of 8 meters.

The soloist has a dual role, playing both standard keyboard and a sampler, with sounds taken from the smashed piano. Thus, the concerto ventures into two parallel universes; one with standard tuning and the other with distorted sounds. The orchestra interacts with both realms, yielding to profoundly engaging, provoking and moving, sonic events. 

The concerto opens with an orchestral introduction, basically conceived as single gesture, an extended attack and decay of the crashing piano. The soloist enters, alongside a projected image of himself, plunging into both musical universes, with opening gestures for both keyboards. 

In the course of the twenty-five-minute concerto, musical collisions, encounters, fusing and overlapping take place, commanding the listener’s undivided attention. Stunningly performed by Nicolas Hodges and the Helsinki Philharmonic, conducted by de Ridder, the Steen-Andersen concerto was a phenomenal experience. 

First performed at the Musica nova, Sami Klemola’s concerto for Hammond organ and orchestra,Ghost Notes (2019-20), is a ravishing affair. Written for Emil Holmström, the concerto makes great use of its solo instrument’s splendid potential, giving rise to truly one-of-a-kind sounding sphere. 

Emil Holmström and Tapiola Sinfonietta, conducted by Roland Kluttig, premiering Sami Klemola’s Ghost Notes. © Maarit Kytöharju

The opening movement, Initiative, is a gorgeous study on drones, with its long-held tones evoking eerie beauty, echoed by Klemola’s intricate orchestration. As the concerto proceeds into its second and third movements, titled Warp and Obsession, respectively, various repetitive structures give rise to cumulative sonics of tremendous energy. 

As a whole, the thirty-minute concerto is an ear-opener par excellence. Both the solo part, thoroughly mastered by Holmström, and the orchestral fabric, conveyed with dedication by Tapiola Sinfonietta and Kluttig, stem from genuine invention and craft, adding up to the most inspiring score. 

Two concertos were featured in the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra programme, conducted by Anna-Maria Helsing. Lisa Streich’s Augenlider (2015) for prepared guitar and orchestra is an intricate, twenty-minute essay in sonority and texture, woven into dazzling sound combinations. Prepared with hair clips and egg slicer, the solo guitar’s extended sound-worlds are echoed in the orchestra too.

Egg-slicers are also played by the three persussionst, among a wide range of more-or-less traditional instruments. The harp is prepared with a paper clip, in order to produce a bell-like sound. Two water bass trombones, standard instruments filled with small amount of water, provide their contribution to the extended brass sonorities.

The concerto’s title, Eyelids, seems to reverb with an echo of the prologue of Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1911/1912/1917/1921) and its reference to ”the curtain of our eyelids.” In a way, the music seems to extend beyond the usual ritual of a performance, opening gateways into fascinating new words, manifested in sounds. 

Marvellously performed by Ismo Eskelinen and the FRSO, with Helsing, Augenlider was a genuine discovery. The concerto’s ever-transforming sonorities had a spell-like effect on the listener, giving rise to the most vivid mental imagery, with invigorating effect.

In similar vein, Maija Hynninen’s oboe concerto Incandescence (2016-17), premiered at Musica nova, takes the listener on another memorable journey, one clad in a cascade of colours. 

The titles of each of the five movements bear references to specific colours, Cherry Red, White Bright, Deep Orange, White Dazzling and Clear Cherry Red. Each of these colours are given their own sonic identities, explored by the soloist and the orchestra. Bridging the main movements together, three short interludes are also heard in the course of the delightful concerto. 

A multitude of extended techniques are at play throughout Incadescence, conceived with wondrrous insight and imagination. The astonising potential of the solo oboe is examined with fantastic craft and vision by Hynninen, ever in relation to the sonic identity of ech movement.

The FRSO principal oboe Kyeong Ham delivered an uplifting performance of the luminous solo part, with the orchestra and Helsing as his trusted fellow travelers. The players exchanged ideas with admirable fluency, resulting in a joyful premiere performance. 

Oboist Kyeong Ham and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Anna-Maria Helsing, rehearsing Maija Hynninen’s Incandescence (2016-17) for the world premiere at Musica nova Helsinki. © Maarit Kytöharju

Created in the footsteps of Xenakis’s Polytopes, Steen-Andersen’s multimedia work Run Time Error in Oodi Library (2021), originally conceived as a live performance, but converted as online stream, was another fascinating experience. However, as its essence lies in attributes not easily converted into words without trivialization, Run Time Error is perhaps best left to be experienced

Among the events cancelled, at least for now, the most regrettable loss was Between, a projected stage production by the Finnish National Opera and Ballet, featuring music theatre works by Kaija Saariaho, Matias Vestergård and Sebastian Hilli. Hopefully new occasions for live performances present themselves in a not-too-distant-future. 

All things considered, the final festival of de Ridder’s tenure was a life-affirming affair, much needed in our restricted lives. For the next festival, ahead in 2023, the artistic Directorship festival will be taken up by soprano Tuuli Lindeberg. By then, we will be living in a newly shaped world, with new horizons to gaze upon. 

Musica nova Helsinki, 2-11 February 2021

© Jari Kallio

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