Kaija Saariaho: Notes on light

for violoncello and orchestra / or cello and chamber orchestra

Boston Symphony Orchestra 125th Anniversary Commission

First performance 22nd February 2007 at Symphony Hall, Boston

Soloist: Anssi Karttunen, cello

Conductor: Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Orchestration: 4,2,3,2/4,0,0,0/Timp, 4 Perc,Hp, Cel, Pno/Strings

Duration: 26-31 min

Performances with Anssi Karttunen as soloist:

- Boston Symphony Orchestra / Jukka-Pekka Saraste 23,24,27.2.2007

- Finnish Radio Orchestra / John Storgårds 14.3.2007

- Polish National Orchestra / Reinbert de Leeuw 23.9.2007

- Swedish Radio Orchestra / Jukka-Pekka Saraste 12.10.2007

- Latvian National Symphony / Ernest Martínez-Izquierdo 1.11.2007

- Orquesta Sinfonica de Navarra / Ernest Martínez-Izquierdo 22-23.11.2007

- Orchestre de Paris / Christophe Eschenbach 13.3.2008

- Barcelona Symphony Orchestra / Ernest Martínez-Izquierdo 25-27.4.2008

- NDR Symphony Orchestra / Sylvain Cambreling 30.5.2008

- CBSO (Mostly Mozart-New York) / Susanna Mälkki 14.8.2008

- Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Oliver Knussen 25-26.9.2008

  1. -Danish Radio Orchestra / John Storgårds 13.11.2008

  2. -Royal Opera House, London / Barry Wordsworth 4-18.11.2009

  3. -New World Symphony, Miami / Susanna Mälkki 23.1.2010

  4. -Asko | Schönberg, Amsterdam / Reinbert de Leeuw 11.11.2010

  5. -Royal Opera House, London / Barry Wordsworth 4-19.10.2011

  6. -New Jersey Symphony Orchestra / Jacques Lacombe 20-22.1.2012

  7. -eco Ensemble, Berkeley, California / David Milner 23.10.2015

  8. -Ensemble Stern, Suntory Hall, Tokyo / Seitaro Ishikawa 24.7.2016

  9. -Orchestre National de Pays de Loire / Ernest Martínez Izquierdo 30.9-1.10. 2017

  10. -Lapland Chamber Orchestra, Rovaniemi / John Storgårds 31.3.2021

  11. -ESMUC Symphony Orchestra, Barcelona / Ernest Martínez Izquierdo 20.4.2021

  12. -Orchestra della Fenice, Venice / Ernest Martínez Izquierdo 17.9.2021

  13. -Helsinki Philharmonic, Helsinki / Susanna Mälkki 14.10.2022

Backstage at the Boston Symphony Hall after the first performance

Notes on "Notes on Light"

Programme note for the premiere in Boston

At first sight Kaija Saariaho’s Notes on Light with its five movements might not seem like the average Cello Concerto. With a closer look, however, one finds the elements that at least I like to think make a great concerto: 1. The relation of soloist and orchestra goes through many very different situations. 2. The soloist is given a chance to show many sides of his personality. 3. When the soloist has important things to say the orchestra gives it space and, on the other hand, the orchestra gets its moments to lift the music up into exuberant colours, often in surprising ways.

The solo cello is not only the hero of Notes on Light, it also has to fight for its rights, lead, collaborate with and sometimes submit to the orchestra. All this makes Notes on light a rich voyage that could well lead us into the very heart of light.

I see two intervals of a semitone as important mottos of the piece: The first is a slide down from f sharp to f natural which starts the piece and to which one returns from different paths along the Concerto. The second is a rising semitone from c sharp to d natural, which often interrupts the action changing the atmosphere. These two motives seem to be even stronger landmarks than any traditional melodic element. In the last movement the single note of f sharp proves to be the centre of the whole work. In fact, Saariaho seems to have invented a kind of melody that doesn’t so much sketch a contour of notes as a contour of colour.

Through the voice of the cello the first movement introduces the secret world of the piece, translucently coloured by small ensembles within the orchestra. The second movement opposes the soloist and the orchestra in a fiery dialogue. The music is energetic and obsessive, the soloist refusing to speak at the same time with the orchestra. The third movement finally awakens both into large, colourful gestures. 

In the fourth movement the soloist offers his c sharp-d motive twice but both times the orchestra eclipses him gently with dark, slowly moving shadows of sound. With the third try he finally drives the shadows away and leads us to the fifth movement, embarking on a voyage towards light. Finally, the F sharp appears as the note that could be the heart of light, it seems to draw all the music to itself, finally lifting the cello high up to the spheres of absolute brightness, .. or total darkness.

On the last page of the score Saariaho includes a quote from T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land:

 "... I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence."

Paris, 2007


Having now played Notes on Light just over fifty times I feel the need to modify my initial analyse of the two semitones being the heart of the piece. I now think that this is actually a piece telling the story of one note: f sharp, which turns out to be the mirror through which we enter silence. The fourth movement, Eclipse is the turning point, the disappearance of light distils the air and the journey towards silence can finally begin. The silence that follows Notes on Light is one of the most precious moments that a musician can ever experience. I am very fortunate to have heard that silence so many times.

Paris, 15. February 2022

MIRAGE for Soprano, Cello and Orchestra

Soprano and cello solo, Orchestration: 2(afl,pic).2.2.2(ctr)/

Text: Maria Sabina

World Premieres:

-Salle Pleyel, Paris: Orchestre de Paris, Karita Mattila, Anssi Karttunen, Christoph Eschenbach

-Berlin Philharmonie: DSO Berlin, Karita Mattila, Anssi Karttunen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste

-Barbican Centre, London: BBC Symphony, Karita Mattila, Anssi Karttunen, Jiri Belohlavek

-Saint Louis Symphony on tour: St. Louis, Ann Arbor, Carnegie Hall, New York: Karita Mattila, Anssi Karttunen, David Robertson

-Roy Thompson Hall, Toronto: Toronto Symphony Orchestra: Karita Mattila, Anssi Karttunen, Hannu Lintu

-2015, Music Hall, Helsinki: Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Karita Mattila, Anssi Karttunen, Hannu Lintu


Programme Notes

A woman, elevated by her aura and her gifts, is alone. Drawn by that aura and those gifts, people have come to see her and to hear her, expecting something quite out of the ordinary.

This is the situation in which we now find ourselves. It was the situation, too, of those who went to southern Mexico in the 1960s to witness the trance states that Marla Sabina - a shaman of the Mazatec people - would attain with the aid of what she called 'holy children', but which became known more widely as 'magic mushrooms'. Also important to her practice were chants, which were recorded and translated into English. Saariaho sets one of these here, in a work commissioned for tonight's soloists, fusing the figures of soprano and shaman, with the cello perhaps as her instigator, questioner and interpreter.

A great deal in Saariaho's experience as a composer has led to this point; a whole history hinges on this moment - for the composer, too, is a shaman of sorts, whose compositions are all preparations for the work yet to come. Her musical relationship with Anssi Karttunen goes back 20 years; last year he gave the premiere of the third concerto she has written for him, Notes on Light. With Karita Mattila her connection is more recent, starting with the song cycle Quatre instants (2002), though again there is an evident sympathy that goes beyond the shared nationality. (This is an unsettled issue with Saariaho, who has lived most of her adult life in Paris.)

Aside from these personal associations; Mirage is one more step in this composer's continuing meditation on the condition of being a woman - a meditation she has voiced in her two operas, L’amour de loin (2000) and Adriana Mater (2005), in her oratorio La Passion de Simone (2006) and in several smaller works. But then, it may be that all her work, even when there is no solo female voice, touches on this theme, for a woman composer is still an exception, and her music may well move towards exploring the nature and qualities of that exceptionalness. In this regard, the repeated calls in Mirage of 'I am', 'I can', might have a particular resonance. The soprano protagonist is losing herself in the cosmos; her state is one of exultation. And yet in this state she seems also to be asking for some reassurance, some guidance, as to her identity and her capacity. The work is a stream of joy and release, but also of questioning.

After a slow sounding-out of harmonic space, the piece goes mostly at an energetic tempo. The cello's opening solo is perhaps urging the soprano to begin, and she does so, rapidly gaining strength. In typical Saariaho style, a modal language for the voice - a language that might indeed suggest chant from some ancient tradition -is combined with finely drawn orchestral textures that both support and extend the modality. Where there are instrumental solos, they imitate the melodic style of the voice. In brief respites the tempo slows, and the cello moves the music towards summoning the voice again. Images of swimming and flight are duly realized in the way both soloists find in the orchestra sympathetic but also challenging environment. Mirage was premiered in Paris.

Paul Griffiths

German premiere, DSO and Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Philharmonie, Berlin


Photos: © Muriel von Braun

Press album



Saariaho: Notes on light and Mirage

World Premiere with Orchestre de Paris, with Christophe Eschenbach

Finnish premiere, Finnish RSO, Hannu Lintu, Music Centre, Helsinki