My Mostly Mozart experiences wrapped up the last two nights, with concerts featuring absolutely no Mozart whatsoever!
The draw for me was the local premiers of two recent Kaija Saariaho, her oratorio on Simone Weil, La Passione de Simone, and her cello concerto Notes on Light, which was paired in concert with the Beethoven “Eroica” Symphony. Final results were the mix of two extremes, from the disappointing to the delirious.
The oratorio promised a great deal, with a collaborative of Amin Maalouf, Peter Sellars and Dawn Upshaw, not to mention Saariaho herself. Her style is one based around the exploration of sound, and she produces a rich blend of colors and textures that is sensual, mysterious, evocative and fascinating. Her approach to drama emphasizes the development of sound, rather than a Mozartian harmonic structure which mirrors and supports the story. This seems to me an excellent way to approach a passion story, one about transformation, as the composer can solve the problem by demonstrating the drama through the transformation of sounds.
Unfortunately, there was no drama to support. The cause is a combination of the specific subject and the text by Maalouf. As far as I can tell, the story narrated by the singer is that of Weil find her way to a sense of self-sacrifice that eventually led her to commit slow suicide via starvation in what she felt was the shared solidarity of her compatriots in Nazi prison and concentration camps. Maalouf seems to have used Weil’s Gravity and Grace as an important source, which is problematic. It’s a book that was never a book, her notebooks for her own personal thoughts, her way of working things out for herself. While reading it one stumbles on the occasional lovely axiom, it’s mainly impenetrable, a conversation in which only one side is heard. The result for La Passione is a very precious and admiring view of what was a sincere, but also dilettantish, life, which concluded with a morally untenable choice. The Weil in the drama is unattractively naive and shallow, and there is no discernible transformation. Nothing actually happens. There’s also a problem with the dramatic voice, with having a narrator sing about the main character who is further referred to in the third person. It seems to me misguided in that it removes all direct agency.
The music goes it’s own way, dark hued and rich, it’s lovely and even soothing, but since there’s no drama, there’s very little change in the music. Since the character undergoes no real transformation, the music follows along, going nowhere. It’s finely crafted and interesting to listen to, but it seems to lack a center. In complete contrast was the cello concerto, which had a superb performance from Anssi Karttunen. This is extraordinarily evocative music, both the cello part and the orchestral accompaniment. Rather than display the agility of the cellist, the writing is concerned with the types of sounds the instrument can produce, mainly ones that are full of timbre and overtones. The orchestra shades the cellist through the five movement, mainly quiet and slow, and highly concentrated. The harmonies are close, and emphasize the movement and tension between half-steps; there’s more than a little Scelsi in the piece. It has a wonderful sound, and was gripping throughout.
The accompanying ensemble both nights was the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, led by Susanna Mälkki with precision, sensitivity and verve. They showed complete command of Saariaho’s idiom and topped off the two nights with a tremendous performance of the Beethoven, one of the finest I have ever heard. It was thrilling, moving, full of rage and dignity and humor, in other words it was Beethoven. Mälkki’s choice of tempos was ideal, and her poise in them was constant, especially her exceedingly fast ones in the first the third movements. She matched the dynamics to speed wonderfully, and kept a focus on clarity of sound and rhythm. The moments of pathos, delight and chaos were all presented clearly and forcefully, yet without particular indulgence. Even at moments that almost beg for extra emphasis, as in when the music seems to disintegrate at points in the first movement, she kept the forward line flowing, and the orchestra played with fire, never seeming rushed. Stupendous. Mozart was not missed Thursday night.