Saariaho’s Vista saluted with standing ovation – astounding evening with the Helsinki Philharmonic and Susanna Mälkki

Kaija Saariaho, Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic rehearsing Vista. © Jari Kallio

Wednesday evening’s marvellous concert with the Helsinki Philharmonic and Chief Conductor Susanna Mälkki marked the long-awaited first live performance of Kaija Saariaho’s Vista (2019). Written for large orchestra and lasting twenty five minutes, the two-movement work is Saariaho’s first purely orchestral score in many years, coming in the heels of her latest opera Innocence, a long-term project completed in December 2018 and premiered at Aix-en-Provence last summer.

Before the live audience outing at the Helsinki Music Centre, Vista has received two online performances, both conducted by Mälkki, to whom the score is dedicated. The world premiere was given online by the Helsinki Philharmonic last May, followed by the German premiere with the Berliner Philharmoniker and streamed on the orchestra’s online platform, the Digital Concert Hall. Although beautifully performed on both occasions, the musical architecture of Vista is best served in genuine live situation, with the in-hall acoustics providing the spatial settings called forth by Saariaho’s exquisite orchestral writing.

The two movements of Vista are played attacca, giving rise to an extended orchestral narrative. Titled Horizons and Targets, the movements are, in many ways, polar opposites. The mist-shrouded quest of Horizons is contrasted by the dramatic, more goal-oriented trajectories of Targets. However, there are multi-layered links between the movements, most notably the recurrence of the opening oboe motive in the coda of Targets, resulting in musical transfiguration of riveting sonic impact.

An orchestral journey of striking vividness, Vista is rooted in fine-tuned instrumental writing, giving rise to musical textures awash with expressive detail, clad in astounding spectrum of texture and colour.

”After all those years with opera, I am so happy to write for the orchestra without the constant need to be so cautious with the dynamics. It think this new piece will open up some new paths for me”, the composer mused at the early stages of the process that lead to Vista, back in the spring of 2019 .

As explained by Saariaho in her program note, the orchestral setup for Vista was devised, in part, as a conscious departure from the composer’s signature sound-world.

”Nevertheless, I also wanted to challenge myself, and deliberately left out some of my signature instruments in orchestral context, namely harp, piano and celesta. I also chose varied colors for the triple woodwind section and wanted to give them more place than usually.”

Despite the large orchestral forces at play, a lot of Vista is scored with chamber-like nuanced detail. In the score, the full potential of triple winds, full brass and strings are is put in great use, not to mention the extraordinary sonic fabric Saariaho has woven for the timpani and three percussionists. The textural continuum from traditional instrumental writing to various extended techniques at play is ever immaculately conceived, giving rise to unique realms of sonority.

Marked calmo, espressivo, Horizons opens with an insistent oboe motive, a shape appearing suddenly out of the mists, escorted by distant, sparse, bell-like notes from vibraphone. Woodwinds ans strings join, launching the orchestral vessel into the unknown. Ever permuting in mood and texture, the first movement builds up to a dazzling discovery in harmony and colour. Some 270 bars later, the musical ark vanishes beyond the horizon.

Reaching the other side, the musical dramaturgy is overturned. Targets opens with a brief orchestral burst, out of which an intense pulse emerges, laid out by mallet percussion. Here, the orchestral narrative is derived from swift, stark contrasts, yielding to a 136-bar instrumental storm of awe-inspiring sonic power. However, the turbulence becomes to a sudden halt in the coda, marked subito molto calmo, sempre espressivo. In the course of the closing 32-bar section, the music transcends into otherworldliness. The opening gesture is reitarated, signalling Vista’s farwell. Ending as it begun, the music evaporates into silence.

Performed with riveting sensitivity and remarkable instrumental expressivity by the Helsinki Philharmonic under Mälkki, Vista was given an wondrous live outing at the Music Centre on Wednesday. An immaculate fusion of textural richness and solid musical architecture, the performance was lauded with a standing ovation as the composer took her bows with Mälkki and the orchestra; a concert opening to remember.

The Helsinki Philharmonic in rehearsal with Chief Conductor Susanna Mälkki and composer Kaija Saariaho. © Jari Kallio

From Helsinki, Vista travels to Los Angeles, where it is to receive its U.S. premiere on 29 October, with Mälkki conducting the LA Phil, to be followed by further performances in Oslo in due course.

At the Helsinki Music Centre, Vista was coupled with Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E major, WAB 107 (1881-83/1885). A befitting pairing, given that the two works, although different in many ways, inhabit somewhat shared universes, where sonic ideas seem to carry profound undertones, ones not easily translated into words, but manifested in splendid musical imagery.

Within the often complicated symphonic realm of Bruckner, the premiere of the Seventh Symphony was the biggest success of the composer’s lifetime. Although revised in 1885, the symphony was not cast into that incessant vortex of alternative versions, which was the fate of so many of Bruckner’s works. Still, some aspects of the score remain disputable, perhaps most notably the cymbal crash at the climax on the second movement.

Cast in four movements including an extended opening, a gorgeous slow movement, an extraordinary scherzo and a fascinating finale, the sixty-five minute symphony is a solemn affair. Scored for a full orchestra with four Wagner tubas added, the Seventh Symphony constitutes a remarkable sonic statement. Despite the large symphonic blocks at play, Bruckner’s writing is often remarkably translucent, with musical lines interwoven into beautifully layered orchestral fabric.

With Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic, the symphony was given an extraordinary performance. The musical architecture was impeccably conceived in Mälkki’s vision, resulting in marvellously shaped overall form, admirably manifested throughout, especially in the astounding Adagio and in the tricky finale, which often comes off somewhat episodic in performance, but not on Wednesday. With Mälkki on the podium, the orchestra delivered a truly life-affirming performance, one of the finest of this symphony I have come to hear in concert.

Bruckner’s unique sense of colour was brought to sounding reality with uplifting imagination and sensitivity by the whole orchestra. A special nod is to be given to the nonet of horns, Wagner tubas and tuba, whose realization of the Brucknerian hall of mirrors was to be counted among the finest in memory.

For Mälkki, less was often more; a guideline that serves Bruckner well. The tempi were well set, yielding to appealing continuity. Mälkki does not linger, but neither does she hurry. Rather, the score was unveiled with notable naturalness, giving rise to a rewarding symphonic journey. At times, the musical narrative was imbued with proto-Sibelian matter-of-factness, which, in fact, seemed quite apt for Bruckner. Instead of pathos, her reading with the orchestra was up invigoratingly visionary. In spirit, the symphony and Vista appeared as fellow travelers, resulting in an evening-long musical journey at the highest level.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Susanna Mälkki, conductor

Kaija Saariaho: Vista (2019) for orchestra

Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E major, WAB 107 (1881-83/1885), Leopold Nowak edition

Music Centre, Helsinki

Wednesday 29 September 2021, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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