Hits & Misses at Zankel Hall

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is in residence at Carnegie Hall this season, and this past Monday night was a chance to hear three of her chamber works for strings alongside several pieces by young composers at Zankel Hall. The concert was part of a Young Artists Workshop, and featured some impressive young string players giving what were mostly premiere performances. While Saariaho’s pieces explored new and exciting timbres in different combinations of strings in a way that felt organic and substantive, the works by young composers fell far short of such substance.

Kaija Saariaho

First the positive: it takes a lot to win me over to the use of electronics in new classical music. I’ve just heard far too many gimmicky attempts that just don’t create sounds of much interest. Likewise, as much as I love the new possibilities of extended techniques and the new string sounds first pioneered by the Polish avant-garde of the 1960s, the overuse and abuse of such techniques can get old quick. In Saariaho’s music, both electronics and new instrumental techniques are used in ways that draw new colors from the instruments that serve the composition’s intentions. Her music possesses a motivic clarity, excellent sense of large-scale phrasing, forms that make intuitive sense, rhythmic drive, and a feeling that the music is going places.

My favorite piece of the evening was Saariaho’s Folia for bass and electronics. In the sounds that emerged, there was a real organic connection between the bass and the electronic transformations it was subjected to. At times the bass sounded mammoth, full of rich overtones and a depth of sound that would have been impossible by strings and wood alone. At other times the subtle echoes or rounder tones coming from the speakers reeled you in closer. The hall seemed to accommodate the volume and richness of the sound well. I have to say that I’ve never heard anything that like this, and on that note alone the work was a success. But beyond creating new sounds, Folia explored its landscapes in arc phrases that spun ideas out of simple beginnings. Much was demanded from bass player Tony Flynt, and he worked his way through the different material with the right kind of patience and finesse that let the music breathe. Hearing this unique composition (its New York premiere) made this concert worth it, and I’d certainly be there if it’s performed again. Saariaho’s ongoing relationship with the IRCAM in Paris has clearly paid off.

Photo by Steve J. Sherman

Saariaho’s other two works performed were devoid of electronics but full of timbral exploration. Cloud Trio, for violin, viola, and cello, succeeded in drawing out the different qualities of each instrument while maintaining coherence to the ensemble. While the piece was very much about texture, clear shapes emerged from the clouds, with rhythmic exuberance and motivic suggestions residing within the larger soundscape. New ideas were explored in coherent sections, and my favorite moment was a sudden jump into a faint pianissimo, as if (continuing the cloud metaphor) the air became almost empty for a moment.

Aure was a rarity in that the viola played the prominent melodic role, while the violin provided what was an often atmospheric accompaniment. Anna Pelczer’s round tone on the viola was a reminder of the emotional qualities of an instrument we don’t get to hear enough of in a more solo setting. While Aure was not a duet in the typical sense of the word, I was struck by the fullness of the sound and richness of the material. Its phrases were all spun out of a simple melody taken from Henri Dutilleux’s Shadows of Time. The text of this melody was taken from Anne Frank’s diary (“Why us, why the star?”), and Saariaho’s choice of instrumentation was a good fit for the child’s voice trying to make sense out of something impossible to make sense of.

Photo by Steve J. Sherman

The rest of the pieces were by composers in their (mostly early) twenties, and as much as I like to root for emerging musicians, I have to say that their works did nothing for me. Each was an attempt to compose with new string techniques that have developed in the last several decades, and often felt like just going from one technique to the next. There was little in the way of motivic clarity (let alone development), forms that made organic sense, or a feeling that something was being communicated from the composer to the audience. While several of the composers drew on outside artistic or conceptual sources for their music, this inspiration felt more pseudo-intellectual than substantive engagement. While some works were a little better than others, and each had a moment or two that sounded interesting (plucked high notes on the bass and cello, a good melodic counterpoint), no melodic gesture or idea sustained itself long enough to really have an impact.

To be fair, these compositions were worked on during a week of workshops, and maybe part of the point was to learn how to write with different string techniques. And I’m not familiar with any of the composers’ other works, and I’ll never write someone off just from hearing one piece. But every one of these compositions had the feel of an over-indulgence in techniques without any substance or emotion. I can deal with a good idea that wasn’t worked out well enough technically from a young composer, but I can’t really deal with a lack of solid good ideas, no matter how technically polished. If anything, these misses were a reminder that in a world of vast inequalities, a lot of hackneyed meaningless artistic work can be produced with at least some degree of technical proficiency but little in the way of meaning. Money can buy musical training at this or that conservatory, but money can’t buy heart and soul, and it’s difficult to create good music without the latter.

David Pearson is a saxophonist residing in NYC.