From Pérotin to Salonen – many meetings with Avanti!

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Finnish premiere of Saltat sobrius with Avanti! Chamber Orchestra. © Heikki Tuuli

Concluding their summer concert series at the Porvoo Art Factory on Sunday evening, Avanti! Chamber Orchestra had teamed up with their co-founder Esa-Pekka Salonen for a terrific programme, weaving together eight centuries of invigorating musical ideas, from Pérotin to Salonen, with Guillaume de Machaut, Richard Strauss and Anneli Arho in between.

Keeping up with the spirit of last year’s public premiere of FOG (2019) with Avanti!, Salonen presented the audiences with another novelty, Saltat sobrius (2020). Subtitled Fantasy upon Sederunt principes, Salonen’s new piece for three violas, three celli, three double basses and harp takes its cue from one of the earliest examples of four-part writing in Western music, namely Pérotin’s famous organum quadruplum, written for Saint Stephen’s Day of 1199.

In his organa, Pérotin, of whom nothing is known beyond his (nick)name, the individual notes of pre-existing liturgical melodies are stretched into a series of slowly moving drones, over which layers of exulted melismatic bursts are superimposed, resulting in spellbinding fabric of free-floating musical lines crossing each other in time and space.

For Salonen, Pérotin’s flamboyant polyphonic devises provided an invigorating departure from the Bachian realm, which, in turn, had bee the key inspiration behind his luminous Frank Gehry tribute, FOG. Following Pérotin’s lead, Salonen turns Saltat sobrius into ravishing ten-minute dancescape, where vibrant harp, gracious violas, lyrical celli and roaring basses all join hands in an aptly surreal ballroom scene.

Within the wonderful array of texture and colour, repetitive musical patterns are layered into dazzling harmonic clouds and rhythmic mazes, giving rise to thrilling kinetic energy. Assuming the role of a cantor, a double bass solo leads the ensemble form one dance sequence to the next and, eventually, closes the piece, accompanied slowly tolling, bell-like chords from the harp.

A combination of virtuosity, ecstasy and doses of good humor, Saltat sobrius salutes both Pérotin and the early Minimalist classics with joy and imagination. Its title comes from Cicero’s famous quote ”nemo enim fere saltat sobrius, nisi forte insanit”, freely translated as ”nobody of sound mind dances sober.”

Originally commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, Saltat sobrius was premiered online by the orchestra and Salonen on 15 April as a part of a programme called Patterns. The Finnish premiere performance on Sunday marked the score’s first outing with live audiences. Enthusiastically received by the sold-out hall, Saltat sobrius was give a top-class performance by Salonen and the Avanti! musicians. Both remarkably translucent and engagingly earthy, the score unraveled with whirl and swing, while maintaining admirable clarity and dexterity.

Salonen and and the members of Avanti! performing Saltat sobrius. © Heikki Tuuli

Preceding Saltat sobrius on the first half of the evening, a captivating sequence of chamber music, joining together the pieces by Anneli Arho and Guillaume de Machaut was heard, beautifully performed by Avanti! Chamber groups.

Arho, who turns seventy this year, is a fantastically original, yet rarely heard voice in contemporary Finnish music. Within her sophisticated musical language, one often hears echoes of Medieval and Renaissance, reinvented in fascinating contexts. In AikAika (1987) for three celli, the musical dramaturgy stems from the juxtaposition of two types of musical gestures, fast tremolo bursts and slowly rotating drones. From this clear-cut outset, Arho weaves a gripping sonic tableau, one of sublime beauty and drama. In the course of AikAika (a punning title derived from the Finnish word for time) the relationship between those initial gestures is in a state of constant ebb and flow, commanding the listener’s full attention.

In Minne (1996) – Aspects on Machaut for piccolo, guitar, percussion and violoncello, Arho devises a spell-like suite of sublime ritual dances from the piece’s core musical idea. In the course of its arch, the musical material goes through a series of elaborate variations in sound and texture, before evaporating back into the surrounding silence.

Between these two wonderfully performed rarities, a sequence of Machaut transcriptions were heard, tailor-made for the occasion, making great use of the instrumental line-up akin to that of Arho’s Minne. A lovely suite, featuring selections form some of Machaut’s key works, such as Hoquetus David and Le lay de confort, the pieces bore an aura of meditative timelessness, yielding to an engaging aural experience.

Following the intermission, Salonen and the Avanti! wind players provided their Art Factory audience with another rare gem, Richard Strauss’s Symphony for Wind Instruments (1944-45). One of the most dazzling works of Strauss’s late oeuvre, written in the midst of the bleak years of Germany’s utter ruin in WWII, the piece was originally called Fröchliche Werkstatt (Happy Workshop), and subtitled as Sonatina No. 2.

Scored for an ensemble of sixteen musicians and lasting almost forty minutes, the four-movement score constitutes, in its essence, a symphony-but-name, one of manifold technical challenges. Thus, upon its posthumous publication, the title was revised form Sonatina to Symphony, in accordance with the music itself.

True to the spirit of Mozart, to whom the score pays a resounding tribute, the music is ever immaculately crafted, yet instantly appealing, awash with gorgeous melodic lines, exquisite counterpoint and luminous textures. The Symphony calls forth an ensemble of sixteen virtuoso soloists, and a conductor with utmost sensitivity to delicate balancing and fine detail. Alongside the usual display of wind instruments and horns, the orchestral fabric includes parts for clarinet in C, basset horn, bass clarinet and double bassoon.

Perhaps a musical coping mechanism or simply a case in point of profound craftsmanship, it is tempting to view Strauss’s Mozartean journey as a yearning for solace in the midst of the bleak realities of war. Be that as it may, the score is, in any case, an absolute masterpiece. While the sonic realm of Strauss’s Happy Workshop does not come off as a strikingly radical quest for the new and unforeseen, the octogenerian composer’s sheer imagination and craft gives rise to an irresistibly charming symphonic journey; one that lives up to its name.

Avanti! wind players and Salonen performing Richard Strauss’s Symphony for Wind Instruments at the Art Factory. © Heikki Tuuli

With Salonen at the helm, the Avanti! wind section, bringing together some the finest players in Finland, gave Strauss’s sunlit score a spectacular outing. The Symphony’s glimmering musical fabric poured from the stage with dream-like radiance, with each of the movements constituting an instrumental narrative of special magnificence. A cascade of symphonic colour, the score was delivered with utmost sensitivity and depth, from genuine pianissimos to terrific fortes.

The musical architecture, ever well devised by Salonen, was awaken in full sonic splendor and brilliance by the orchestra, resulting in one of those unforgettable journeys into absolute beauty.

An evening of many meetings across time, sharing the joy of music-making with the sold-out, state-of-the-art safety distanced hall, was indeed privilege.

Avanti! Chamber Orchestra

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Anneli Arho: AikAika (1987) for three celli

Guillaume de Machaut: Sans cuer m’en vois

Guillaume de Machaut: Le lay de la fonteinne

Guillaume de Machaut: Hoquetus David

Guillaume de Machaut: Le lay de confort

Guillaume de Machaut: Sans cuer m’en vois

Anneli Arho: Minne (1996) – Aspects on Machaut for piccolo, guitar, percussion and violoncello

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Saltat sobrius (2020) – Fantasy upon Sederunt principes for string esemble and harp

Richard Strauss: Symphony for Wind Instruments ’Fröhliche Werkstatt’ (1944-45)

Art Factory, Porvoo, Finland

Sunday 15 August 2021, 6pm

© Jari Kallio

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