ICE heats up MCA with Saariaho’s timeless, compelling music
Kaija Saariaho, a native of Finland now based in Paris, is one of the most compelling composers writing today. Deeply fascinated by computer-generated sound, she nonetheless writes music that is full of emotional depth, warmth and color. There is something comfortingly human about her vast, mysterious aural landscapes.
The International Contemporary Ensemble explored some enticing corners of Saariaho’s terrain Thursday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Northwestern University named Saariaho the winner of its 2008 Nemmers Prize, and the ICE concert was part of the composer’s fall residency at NU’s music school.
The program included four works, opening with Terrestre, written in 2002 for five players headed by an urgent, agitated flute; and Six Japanese Gardens, a work for solo percussionist and electronics from 1994. After intermission came two larger pieces that also included electronics: Lichtbogen, premiered in 1986 and one of Saariaho’s most popular works; and Solar, a 1992 work for full chamber orchestra.
Though its acoustics are slightly dry, MCA’s 300-seat black box theater proved to be an ideal place to hear music that consistently brought visual images to mind. In Six Japanese Gardens, the array of gold and red percussion instruments surrounding Nathan Davis, the unflappable ICE percussionist, glowed like a piece of metallic art against the stage’s black backdrop.
From the first moments of Terrestre, it was clear that ICE was entirely at home in Saariaho’s musical universe. Claire Chase, the ensemble’s executive director as well as a dazzling flutist, dug into the short work that also included harp, cello, violin and percussion. She called us to attention with short, aggressive runs, at times muttering angrily into the flute, her words emerging in broken, raspy fragments. Against her mercurial lines, the other instruments were a steady, more introspective presence.
In the individual sections of Six Japanese Gardens, Davis moved coolly amid his instruments, creating vast, timeless soundscapes. At times the air seemed smoky, filled with the muted roar of a large gong or an indistinct wash of electronic noise. At other times a single sound—the mighty clang of ferociously hit finger cymbals or the quick clatter of mallet against wood block—emerged like a sudden beam of light.
Inspired by the Northern Lights, Lichtbogen was full of subtle shifts from shadowy, teeming darkness to quietly radiant light. Solar was more animated and often playful. At times the instruments happily bustled against each other, racing by like sleek cars in an elegant traffic jam.
Saariaho will return to Chicago for concerts entirely devoted to her music April 15 and 16 at Northwestern, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs Orion, which Saariaho wrote for the Cleveland Orchestra in 2002, Feb. 25-Mar. 2.
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