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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Concert Review: Senses Working Overtime

The New York Philharmonic presents Circle Map.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Clarinetist Kari Krikku (right) makes his escape during Kaija Saariaho's D'om le Vrai Sens.
Photo by Chris Lee for the New York Philharmonic.
The Park Avenue Armory hulks on the Upper East Side, its brick ramparts a brusque reminder of this country's long military history. In this century though, it is a space for the avant-garde in art, music and theater an ideal laboratory for unusual programs that require breadth of imagination as well as breadth of physical space.  Their latest offering is Circle Map, a 90-minute concert program focusing on the music of Finnish compoer Kaija Saariaho, one of the few women who have made an international reputation as a fearless explorer of the musical avant-garde.

Ms Saariaho is enjoying a banner 2016, with this program played by the  New York Philharmonic (under the baton of its current composer-in-residence, Esa-Pekka Salonen) and an opera scheduled to premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in December. This program featured four of her compositions, three of which were receiving their New York premieres. The  first work on the program, Lumière et Pesanteur, was in fact written for Mr. Salonen, an eight-part soundscape that offered diaphanous chords, subtly applied percussion and clouds of sound that hovered in the air before bursting, quietly just out of range.

Although only an hour and a half, Circle Map was an uncompromising evening, not just for the orchestral musicians but for the devotees in this temple of sound, arranged on rising bleachers around the orchestra or on thumback chairs on the floor. Those chairs were on woven Persian rugs, themselves a visial reference to those who remember the "rug concerts" given by the Philharmonic in the Pierre Boulez era at Lincoln Center. With an exclusive focus on one composer and Mr. Salonen at the helm of the vast orchestra, it had the feeling of religious ritual celebrated through secular art, a military installation finding its redemption through sound.

With no intervals and no pauses for audience applause, the only way to notice that the second piece had started was to watch Mr. Salonen as he set one score aside on his desk and began the next. This was D'om le Vrai Sens, a six-movement concerto for clarinet inspired by a medieval tapestry The Lady and the Unicorn The instrument wailed and moaned from offstage, a mysterious banshee screech. Eventually soloist Kari Krikku revealed himself. He began moving, dancing slowly, posing and playing dizzying sheets of sound on his horn, even in the middle of a bemused, seated audience.

The first five movements focused on one of the five senses, with the tempos and accompaniment changing as the music moved across the spectrums of sight, sound, touch, taste and even smell. The application of strange intervals and appeal to all the senses recalled the late synesthetic works of Scriabin, and the shifting, psychedelic colors projected above the orchestra made a digital dive into the depths of the tapestry's threads. The sixth, "A mon seul Désir" featured the Philharmonic players rising to their feet in response to Mr. Krikku and rhythmic cues from the percussionists. with the string players eventually following him around the circular stage setup as if he were the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Mr. Salonen took a seat next to the podium for the next piece, Lonh. Written for soprano and electronics in 1996, it is a predecessor to the larger opera L'Amour de Loin coming to the Met stage on December 1. The song is a setting of a text by Jaufré Rudel, the medieval troubador who also inspired this opera. Its words. sih both in French and the original Provençal, were stretched and smeared over nine consecutive sections, interpreted with haunting power by soprano Jennifer Zetlan. She moved from the back of the stage slowly to the front as she sang, moving like a sleepwalker against the swirling visuals.

The concert ended with its most demanding work. Circle Map is a 30-minute tone poem for orchestra, in which Ms. Saariaho abandons gossamer structure for the more rock-ribbed world of the conventional symphony orchestra. It opens with the familiar, hazy sound-clouds, yielding to percussion and brass that drive its great engine forward. The piece is a setting of six poems by the Persian master Rūmī, accompanied by visuals of hands making parchment books of  calligraphed poems in the original Persian alphabet, and recitations of the poems in their original language. All this multimedia added to the sensation of sensory overload created by the orchestra, which was no doubt Ms. Saariaho's intended effect.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.