Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Review: Kaia Saariajo Explores SoCal ‘Vista’ with LA Phil

When she was last in Los Angeles three years ago, composer Kaija Saariaho was driving along the coast. The Finnish composer was delighted with the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s performance of her Trans harp concerto, conducted by Principal Guest Conductor Suzanne Melcki. Saariaho had finished her shocking opera Innocence and was about to start a new orchestral piece for Mälkki, co-commissioned by Phil Los Angeles. A little inspiration would have been nice.

As the composer writes in his keynote address for Vista, which premiered in the US with Mälkki and LA Phil last weekend, many bright “perspectives” on the San Diego road have influenced her latest work. Saariaho has an amazing visual sensibility. An outstanding musical colorist, she has a knack for capturing beauty in sound, which has earned her devoted fans. The Halloween party I heard at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday was unearthly and, yes, memorable.

While Vista is essentially an abstract exploration of the transformation of an ever-changing musical landscape of melodic forms, textures, timbres and harmonies, an inevitable sense of foreboding pervades its heated atmosphere. Take a trip today and get off 405 in San Pedro and you will have ocean-hazardous cargo ships pulled further than the eye can see, and polluting trucks galore. Another stop, Huntington Beach, is the site of a recent horrific oil spill. The first real view of our five magnificent coastline is from San Onofre Beach, where an old nuclear reactor looms with its 3.6 million pound nuclear waste stored 100 feet above sea level.

As a composer whose music has long celebrated elements – “True Fire” and “Earth’s Shadows” have played in LA Phil in recent years – Saariaho is now picking up, consciously or not, the sound of fading perspectives.

Vista is about 25 minutes long and consists of two parts – Horizons and Targets – and opens with an intriguing, long and nasal oboe melody. This is soon reinforced by strings that provide Saariaho’s “ghostly” harmonies, a series of complex interactions of eerie, high-pitched and semi-audible sounds that can unpredictably stimulate the listener’s nervous system, be it arousal, anxiety, or annoyance.

These musical landscapes are interrupted, as is the ride in the 5th car. Loudly grouped wind and brass spirits, as well as trills and gliding strings, haunt. But prolonged, meditative, trance-like stretching does bring the temperature down, signaling the end of the horizon. The dream is broken by the beginning of the “Goals” when the horizon turns into sound shards. Vista ends with silence, but not peace. It sounds, as it often happens in Saariaho’s music, after a long time.

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This is exactly what Melckie seems to have meant prophetically. Due to the cancellation of the pandemic, she did not return to Los Angeles Phil for almost two years, but has been active since then. She has a pandemic online with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, of which she is the principal conductor, and you can watch the world premiere of Vista last spring performed by the remote orchestra without an audience on Vimeo. She then performed another performance of Vista with the Berlin Philharmonic (which can be seen at the Orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall). This summer she also hosted the triumphant premiere of Innocence in Aix-en-Provence.

Melcki’s new recording at the Helsinki Philharmonic Society of “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste” by Bela Bartok, as well as the Concerto for Orchestra, are simply splendid. Her name is increasingly mentioned when major orchestras begin their search for new music directors, as was the case with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Melckie’s LA performances will only help raise her profile, and she will be returning for a second program at Disney this weekend.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Italian soloist Beatrice Rana was an unlikely piece after Vista. But Malcky’s performance of Alexander Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy after intermission was so big, deafening and audaciously overwhelming that it was overwhelming perfection for those of us enthusiastic enough to experience it.

Even Tchaikovsky’s chestnut was being played for power. Here rattled Rana, who has many admirers for the fullness of her tone and her grace. She had to; Melcky thundered. The dialogues between the piano and wind instruments were sharp and angular.

In the immoderate Poem of Ecstasy, the solo violin sings about love. The huge orchestra heaves and explodes. Deep brass and Disney organ shake the floor, massaging everyone’s feet. Percussion does not take prisoners.

It wasn’t for everyone; several people left during the intermission. But “ecstasy” was prescribed here to those who wish. It is never less than what its name announces, but I have never heard it play more convincingly and tastefully! – splendor.

Notably, Los Angeles-based pianist Joan Pierce Martin performed a touching solo performance of Henry Mancini’s “River Moon” in memory of Ginny Mancini. One of the orchestra’s most loyal and longtime supporters, Mancini died in late October at the age of 97 and will be sorely missed.

Los Angeles Philharmonic

What kind: Reich, Adams and Rachmaninoff conducts Suzanne Melcky
When: 20:00 Saturday, 14:00 Sunday
Tickets: USD 55-192
Information: (323) 850-2000,

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