Unforgettable Ekstasis by Kaija Saariaho and Jean-Baptiste Barrière with three astonishing soloists

A detail from Ekstasis, an audio-visual collaboration between Kaija Saariaho and Jean-Baptiste Barrière touring Amos Rex Helsinki and G Livelab Tampere. © Helsinki Festival

An audio-visual event of unusual intensity and connectivity took place within the splendid ambience of G Livelab Tampere on Friday, as three terrific musicians, violinist Aliisa Neige Barrière, flutist Camilla Hoitenga and soprano Raphaële Kennedy teamed up to perform Ekstasis, an evening-length event with six solo pieces by Kaija Saariaho and Jean-Baptiste Barrière.

With both composers present, the sold-out evening brought together astounding musical performances and reflective video material, imaginatively devised by Jean-Baptiste Barrière, with intricate connections between each of the musical scores.

Written in early 1994 and dedicated to the memory of Witold Lutosławski, Saariaho’s Nocturne for violin solo explores some of the initial musical ideas conceived for her violin concerto Graal Théâtre (1994). In the course of the six-minute score, the core material unravels gradually, in absorbingly dream-like manner. Coloured by various tremolo gestures, alongside sul ponticello effects and refined pizzicati, the solo line is shrouded by harmonic cloud-formations of riveting sonorities.

Luminously performed by Aliisa Neige Barrière, Nocturne was accompanied by visual imagery somewhat analoguous to the musical material; real-time processed video footage of the soloist, woven into coloured contours and gently superimposed after-images. A sublime fusion of sound and vision, Nocturne set the evening in enchanted motion.

The origins of NoaNoa (1992) for solo flute are found in Saariaho’s ballet score Maa (1991). Written for Camilla Hoitenga in close collaboration with the soloist and Jean-Baptiste Barrière, NoaNoa is based on simultaneous, overlapping development of several musical ideas, or gestures, somewhat akin to Lutosławski’s technique of chains, found in his late works.

The piece’s title, translated as Fragrance, comes from Paul Gaugin’s eponymous wood cut and Tahitian travel diary, which also serves as the source of NoaNoa’s text fragments, spoken by the soloist. In addition, the solo flute’s sonic realm in extended with an electronic part, composed of various processed sounds.

Withing its eight-minute realm, NoaNoa constitutes an entire sonic microcosm of its own, superbly brought to life by Hoitenga. Arising seamlessly from the musical tableau, the visual material was based on an appealing mixture of Gaugin’s imagery and imaginatively colorized video loops, alongside live footage of the soloist. A spellbinding performance, NoaNoa constituted a veritable sensory oasis.

Closing the first sequence, Saariaho’s ravishing Lonh (1996) was heard, in a wonderful performance by Raphaële Kennedy. Scored for soprano and electronics, Lonh was written as a prologue to Saariaho’s first opera L’amour de loin (2000). The text, sung in mediaeval Provençal and attributed to the troubadour Jaufré Rudel, muses on the idea of love from afar and its multi-layered mixture of emotions and perceptions.

One of Saariaho’s most grippingly beautiful pieces, Lonh is both hauntingly evocative and tremendously refined. The soaring vocal line is woven into a pre-recorded tapestry of spoken text, percussive fragments, and nature sounds, all subsumed into vibrant harmonic ambience. In similar vein to NoaNoa, the video material combined live material, paintings and processed imagery into a captivating visual narrative, beautifully aligned with the music.

The second sequence, performed without intermission, was comprised of three pieces by Jean-Baptiste Barrière, with similar scorings as in the three Saariaho pieces. Written for Hoitenga, Crossing the Blind Forest (2011) for bass flute, piccolo and electronics is an evocation of Maurice Maeterlink’s play Les aveugles (1890), itself rooted in Pieter Bruegel’s painting by the same title. The invigorating musical material originates in an earlier Maeterlink project by Barrière, premiered in 2007.

The scoring brings together the two ends of the flute continuum, giving rise to a wondrous musical arch, augmented with real-time processing and spatial projection. In the course of the eleven-minute journey, the soloist wanders through the unseen realm and its perils according to an innate sonic map of poignant intimacy and enthralling, sensitive expression. Marvellously performed by Hoitenga, the music imbued the space with almost tactile connectivity. The sublime visual narrative, eloquently evoked by the sonics, combined techniques used for the Saariaho pieces, aptly bridging the evening’s two halves together onto one intriguing continuum.

The most straightforwardly narrative piece in the programme was Barrière’s Violance (2003), a shattering account, documenting an ancient tale of a grim massacre of children carried out by a host of armored men executing the orders of their cloaked leader. Recalled by narrator, the gruesome tale in told in chapters, followed by instrumental commentary from the solo violin.

The version performed at G Livelab Tampere featured Aliisa Neige Barrière in a triple role; not only did she appear as the solo violinist and the on-screen narrator, but also accompanied her childhood self found singing on the original electronic soundtrack, recorded back in 2003. The combination of the inevitability of the calmly spoken narration, the deeply moving lamentation of the solo violin and the spare imagery gave rise to the most powerful experience, a befitting meditation on the deeply-rooted violence plaguing our existence from one century to another.

The evening’s astonishing arch was brought to its conclusion by the event’s title piece, Barrière’s Ekstasis (2014) for voice and electronics. A reflective study on the incessant thrive for the many guises of ecstasy, and its various societal and personal repercussions, the fifteen-minute piece is awash with refined vocal expression, augmented with electronics. An outstanding performance from Raphaële Kennedy, Ekstasis came off with inspired aural and visual links to the narrative realm of Lonh, closing the extraordinary evening with though-provoking intensity.

Ideally suited for the project, the intimate, yet spacious ambience of the G Livelab provided both the artists and the audience with focused acoustics and top-class sound projection. Joined by both composers, the performance was followed by a homely post-concert hangout, carried out with appropriate covid countermeasures. A gratifying experience for the sold-out first night audience as well as the artists, this evening, emerging as a beacon of hope from all the pandemic isolation, will long dwell in memory.

Aliisa Neige Barrière, violin

Camilla Hoitenga, flute

Raphaële Kennedy, soprano

Kaija Saariaho: Nocturne (1994) for violin solo

Kaija Saariaho: NoaNoa (1992) for flute solo

Kaija Saariaho: Lonh (1996) for soprano and electronics

Jean-Baptiste Barrière: Crossing the Blind Forest (2011) for bass flute, piccolo and electronics

Jean-Baptiste Barrière: Violance (2003) for violin, child’s voice and electronics

Jean-Baptiste Barrière: Ekstasis (2014) for voice and electronics

G Livelab Tampere, Finland

Friday 20 August, 8 pm

© Jari Kallio

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