Notes on Light
Writing about a new work before its first performance is always scary even if there is no composer whose music is closer to me than Kaija. I know from experience that only after playing a new piece several times can I put into words my real feelings about it. I will attempt here to describe what I see and hear now, while preparing the piece for the first performance.
At first sight Notes on light with its five movements doesn't quite resemble the average Cello Concerto. However, with a closer look I soon found the elements that I like to think make a great concerto: -The relation of soloist and orchestra goes through many very different situations. -The cello is given the chance to show its full versatility. - When the soloist has important things to say, the orchestra gives it space and on the other hand the orchestra also gets its moments to lift the music up into exuberant colours.
The Soloist is not just the hero of Notes on Light, he/she also has to stand up for his rights, fight, lead, collaborate with and sometimes submit to the orchestra. All these make Notes on light a rich voyage that could well lead us into the very heart of light.
I see two intervals of a semitone as important mottos of the piece: The first is a slide down from f sharp to f natural which starts the piece and to which one returns from different paths along the Concerto. The second is a rising figure of c sharp to d natural, which often interrupts the action and stops the soloist. These two motives seem to be even stronger landmarks than any melodic element. In the last movement the single note of f sharp proves to be the centre of the whole work.
Through the voice of the cello the first movement introduces the secret world of the piece, translucently coloured by the orchestra in small ensembles. The second movement opposes the soloist and the orchestra in a fiery dialogue. The music is energetic and obsessive, the soloist refusing to speak at the same time with the orchestra. The third movement finally awakens both into building together large, colourful gestures.
In the fourth movement the orchestra eclipses the soloist with dark waves of sound. The Soloist offers his c sharp-d motive twice, in vain. He finally shakes the shadows away with the third try that leads us directly to the fifth movement and the two embark on a voyage towards light. Finally F sharp is the note that becomes the heart of light, lifting the cello in the end high up to the spheres of absolute brightness, .. or total darkness.
On the last page of the score Saariaho has included a quote from T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land:
"... I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence."
Anssi Karttunen, January 11th 2007, Paris
...the piece emerges as an earthy, weighty and strained dialogue between a mercurial cello and an enveloping orchestra. At first the cello explores a tortured theme that prolongs a painful half-step melodic motif, and evolves in arching spans alive with slides, groans and slippery pitches. The orchestra, a mass of precisely layered, quivering sonorities, alternately cushions and rattles the cello.
Though the work is ominous and searching over all, there are strongly contrasting sections, as in the second movement, which erupts into spiraling orchestra riffs and fitful cello outbursts. As always in a Saariaho score, color is primary, and Mr. Karttunen showed a mastery of myriad colorings in his rhapsodic performance.
Anthony Tommasini, The NEw York Times, 15/08/2008
Kaija Saariaho’s music is Finnish firewater laced with classy cognac. A pioneer, together with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Magnus Lindberg, of Finland’s avant-garde, Saariaho is now an adopted Parisian whose music fuses raw energy and sensuous sophistication.
The Barbican hosts the UK premiere of her oratorio La Passion de Simone in July; her music joins that of Sibelius Unbound in November; and returns next year in her opera Adriana Mater. And the European premiere of Saariaho’s Cello Concerto has just proved the hottest of hot tickets at this spring’s Musica nova festival in Helsinki.
Anssi Karttunen was the virtuoso cello soloist in Notes on Light, a five-movement journey towards T. S. Eliot’s “heart of light”: The Waste Land is quoted at the end of the score. The metaphor of light has become almost a cliché of Nordic music. But Saariaho has created a tough and challenging metaphor for performance itself.
The drooping semitone, with which the solo cello starts, has to fight its way through ensemble, dialogue and dark orchestral masses to find its own light, to return to the one true note with which it began – now purified and high in the cello’s stratosphere. Abstract form brings out the sinewy best in Saariaho: this is a fine addition to her portfolio.
, The Times, 21/03/2007
Anssi Karttunen was the virtuoso cellist in Notes on Light, a five-movement journey towards T.S. Eliot's "heart of light": The Waste Land is quoted at the end of the score. The metaphor of light has become almost a cliche of Nordic music. But Saariaho has created a tough and challenging metaphor for performance itself. The drooping semitone, with which the solo cello starts, has to fight its way through ensemble, dialogue and dark orchestral masses to find its own light, to return to the one true note with which it began - now purified and high in the cello's stratosphere. Abstract form brings out the sinewy best in Saariaho: this is a fine addition to her portfolio.
Hilary Finch, THe Times, 12/03/2007
...the soloist veers off into various sound worlds, and the orchestra scurries along trying to keep up. Saraste did a masterful job keeping the various forces in order. It is rare when a new work sounds completely convincing and lucid at first hearing; thanks to Saraste and Karttunen, that was the case with “Notes on Light.”
, The Boston Herald, 24/02/2007
This excellent Finnish composer is a master of sonic iridescence, a creator of blazing nightscapes for orchestra. One of her earlier works was actually inspired by the aurora borealis , and her newest piece is called "Notes on Light."
Commissioned by the BSO to mark its 125th anniversary, "Notes on Light" received its world premiere last night at Symphony Hall, with the orchestra led by the Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste.
Saariaho wrote this fascinating new work for her longtime collaborator, the Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen , who was naturally the soloist last night. Interesting, while many new works struggle for an initial boost beyond their world premiere, "Notes on Light" already has numerous performances scheduled by different orchestras well into 2008.
Previous Saariaho works written for Karttunen tended to focus the ear on the minute surface details of sound, with pieces that often resemble extended studies in acoustic texture, often with the help of electronic input. In this case, she has written a far more extroverted work, a cello concerto in all but name, with the orchestra and soloist engaged in an ever-shifting dialogue that is loosely divided into five movements.
At work from the start is Saariaho's sensitive ear and highly individual feel for orchestral color, later enhanced by bright splashes of percussion. In the first movement, downward-sloping glissandi in the strings suggest movement towards an interior domain. The solo cello, often in stratospheric registers, volleys passionately with the orchestra. Saariaho uses many of her signature extended techniques, including notes purposefully crushed with the bow until they resemble noise. In the fourth movement, the cellist falls silent for long stretches as the life seems to slowly drain from the orchestra. The fifth movement, titled "Heart of Light" after a quote from "The Waste Land," ends with a long-held pianissimo F-sharp, a fade to white, and a capacious silence.
Jeremy Eichler, The Boston Globe, 23/02/2007