Amsterdam, 26 Sept. 2008

NRC Handelsblad,

By Jochem Valkenburg

RCO's Played Saariaho tingling sound world

"Fantastic music, a dream soloist and a top conductor: the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra opened their 'contemporary' series 'Recommended adventure' as might be expected. Only some 900 concertgoers had understood that something unusual was happening.

In the cello concerto Notes on Light (2006) by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho her compatriot Anssi Karttunen shone phenomenally. It was obvious that she had written the work for him. Saariaho is a wizard with sounds - within three notes, she places the listener in a magical glittering world of sound. Nevertheless Karttunen takes the lead as as the soloist- like a guide, both expressive and virtuoso he remains at the forefront, unassumingly truthful in this colour-rich atmosphere.

These "erratic" tones are characteristic of the piece, and of Saariaho's work in general  : not one note is simple - they slide away stretching or volatilising into harmonics. 

At no moment would the listener come to think that the KCO had never player Saariaho before. Complex sound spectra were rendered with great natural ease, and how sounds became discoloured or densified, escaping or simply weightless, bordered on the unbelievable."

Rehearsing with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Oliver Knussen


Stockholm, October 2007:

Dagens Nyheter

14 October 2007

"...When the brilliant cellist Anssi Karttunen takes the Cello Concerto „Notes on light“ under his wing, the audience encounters a significantly more austere and introvert story. There is a virtuosic fluidity in the restless ball game between soloist and orchestra in the second movement, but at the same time a clear pinch of Saariaho’s obsession with the structure of sound when she elicits an almost electronic sound from the Orchestra. The fourth movement is possibly most remarkable as the solo cello falls completely silent for quite a while, as if swallowed by the black hole of the music. A snarling maelstrom meanders slowly and searchingly through the Orchestra before Karttunen lets the cello trill again icily glide upwards to the last high F sharp, the painfully sought-after destination of the whole concerto – the “heart of light”, the subject of the poem by T.S. Eliot which is quoted in the score. Karttunen as well as Jukka-Pekka Saraste who premiered “Notes on Light” at the beginning of the year interpreted the work consistently, fascinatingly and without a doubt congenially."


Svenska Dagbladet

15 October 2007

"The Finnish star cellist Anssi Karttunen has become a spokesman for Saariaho’s music since he has already premiered several of her works for cello, and he offered a consistent and intelligent interpretation of her cello concerto „Notes on Light“.


Lights in the north, Finns at the BSO

By Jeremy Eichler, Boston Globe,  February 24, 2007

I have never actually witnessed the atmospheric wonder known as the Northern Lights, but with its bright bursts of color against a vast arctic sky, it must be similar to the music of Kaija Saariaho. This excellent Finnish composer is a master of sonic iridescence, a creator of blazing nightscapes for orchestra. One of her earlier works was actually inspired by the aurora borealis, and her newest piece is called "Notes on Light."

Commissioned by the BSO to mark its 125th anniversary, "Notes on Light" received its world premiere Thursday night at Symphony Hall, with the orchestra led by the Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste. The program also included early works by Debussy and Sibelius. There seemed to be more empty seats in Symphony Hall than I have seen at most BSO concerts this season. A shame, as the program was richly rewarding, even if it was not buoyed by standard household names.

Saariaho wrote this fascinating new work for her longtime collaborator, the Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen, who was naturally the soloist Thursday night. Interesting, while many new works struggle for an initial boost beyond their world premiere, "Notes on Light" already has numerous performances scheduled by different orchestras well into 2008, an indication of how Saariaho's fame has spread since the 2000 premiere of her entrancing opera "L'Amour de Loin."

Previous Saariaho works written for Karttunen tended to focus the ear on the minute surface details of sound, with pieces that often resemble extended studies in acoustic texture, often with the help of electronic input. In this case, she has written a far more extroverted work, a cello concerto in all but name, with the orchestra and soloist engaged in an ever-shifting dialogue that is loosely divided into five movements.

At work from the start is Saariaho's sensitive ear and highly individual feel for orchestral color, later enhanced by bright splashes of percussion. In the first movement, downward-sloping glissandi in the strings suggest movement toward an interior domain. The solo cello, often in stratospheric registers, volleys passionately with the orchestra. Saariaho uses many of her signature extended techniques, including notes purposefully crushed with the bow until they resemble noise. In the fourth movement, the cellist falls silent for long stretches as the life seems to slowly drain from the orchestra. The fifth movement, titled "Heart of Light" after a quote from "The Waste Land," ends with a long-held pianissimo F-sharp, a fade to white, and a capacious silence.

Saariaho's music sounds like no one else's, but the influence of Debussy is often palpable. Thursday night began with a vivid account of that composer's "Printemps," but Saraste was at his most inspired after intermission when leading the orchestra in an exciting rendition of Sibelius's "Four Legends from the Kalevala." He used sweeping gestures from the podium to chisel out expressive lines from the orchestra , and Robert Sheena provided delicately inflected English horn solos in the famous "Swan of Tuonela ." The strings played with strength, flexibility, and a tone of dark beauty .


Boston Herald:

Boston Symphony premiere is strong to the Finnish

By Keith Powers

Saturday, February 24, 2007 

There was a New Yorker cartoon long ago that showed a conductor at the podium, with the open score and the orchestra in front of him. But instead of notes in the score, all it said was, “Wave your arms around until the music stops.” 

Sadly, that seems the case with all too many conductors, who often appear to be along for the ride. Not so with dynamic Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, who led a strong program of music mainly by his compatriots with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday evening at Symphony Hall. Saraste played the orchestra with the same assurance that a great violinist plays a fiddle.

It was a program of atmospheres that began with Debussy’s two-movement suite “Printemps” moved to a stunning world premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s “Notes on Light” featuring Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen as soloist, and concluded with Jean Sibelius’ set of four tone poems based on the Finnish epic “Kalevala.” 

The combination was brilliantly conceived. Both Debussy’s standard and Saariaho’s commission seemed cut from the same cloth: airy, lyric, suggestive but never vague. 

Saariaho, a 54-year-old Finn who has resided in Paris for more than three decades, has written several previous works for her virtuosic countryman Karttunen, and it’s an admirable partnership indeed. “Notes on Light” might not actually be a cello concerto - we can argue about it if you like - as it does not do the traditional concerto thing by having the soloist sketch out a motive or melody and then make the orchestra respond with new textures, harmonies or color. Instead the soloist veers off into various sound worlds, and the orchestra scurries along trying to keep up. 

Saraste did a masterful job keeping the various forces in order. It is rare when a new work sounds completely convincing and lucid at first hearing; thanks to Saraste and Karttunen, that was the case with “Notes on Light.” 

Sibelius’ music has long been popular with musicians, but less so with audiences. Thanks to the BSO’s commitment to his repertoire, that is changing. His “Four Legends” from the “Kalevala” shows why this important composer deserves increased scrutiny. Featuring a shimmering English horn solo by Robert Sheena in the third movement, “Legends” paints a convincing portrait of this great Finnish epic. 


The Times, London:

Musica nova

Hilary Finch in Helsinki, March 21, 2007

Kaija Saariaho’s music is Finnish firewater laced with classy cognac. A pioneer, together with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Magnus Lindberg, of Finland’s avant-garde, Saariaho is now an adopted Parisian whose music fuses raw energy and sensuous sophistication.

The Barbican hosts the UK premiere of her oratorio La Passion de Simone in July; her music joins that of Sibelius Unbound in November; and returns next year in her opera Adriana Mater. And the European premiere of Saariaho’s Cello Concerto has just proved the hottest of hot tickets at this spring’s Musica nova festival in Helsinki.

Anssi Karttunen was the virtuoso cello soloist in Notes on Light, a five-movement journey towards T. S. Eliot’s “heart of light”: The Waste Land is quoted at the end of the score. The metaphor of light has become almost a cliché of Nordic music. But Saariaho has created a tough and challenging metaphor for performance itself.

The drooping semitone, with which the solo cello starts, has to fight its way through ensemble, dialogue and dark orchestral masses to find its own light, to return to the one true note with which it began – now purified and high in the cello’s stratosphere. Abstract form brings out the sinewy best in Saariaho: this is a fine addition to her portfolio....


Helsinki, March 2007


23 March 2007

The solo part at the beginning of Saariaho’s work, which is being played by the marvellous Anssi Karttunen, says a lot about Saariaho as a composer. It is based on the development of harmonics, so that each tone receives countless qualities and gradually changes into something else. The piece ends on its own initial tone, from which it developes into an overtone. Thus her masterful orchestration is often a carefully developed soundscape; there is always something new which draws the listener’s attention.


Helsingin Sanomat:

Vesa Siren 16.3.2007


Kaija Saariaho löysi valon ja tanssin

Trbojevic käsittelee massoja, Hämeenniemi perinnettä

Radion sinfoniaorkesteri Finlandia-talossa keskiviikkona joht. John Storgårds, solistina Anssi Karttunen, sello. – Trbojevic, Saariaho, Hämeenniemi.

Kaija Saariahon uusi sellokonsertto on varattu jo 20 orkesterin ohjelmistoon ympäri maailmaa.

Olipa valtava ohjelma. Radion sinfoniaorkesteri tarjosi kolme uutta suomalaista orkesteriteosta, yhteensä puolitoista tuntia uutta omaksuttavaa. Odotetuin teos oli Kaija Saariahon Notes on Light, joka saatiin Suomeen heti Bostonin-kantaesityksen jälkeen.

Kyseessä on sellokonsertto, vaikka säveltäjä ei sitä sellaiseksi kutsu. Solisti (Anssi Karttunen) on uhmakaskin yksilö ja orkesteri häneen reagoiva ympäristö. Eikä solisti koskaan huku orkesterin alle, mikä on sellokonsertossa jopa harvinaista.

Ensimmäinen osa on tutun läpikuultavaa ja salaperäistä värimusiikkia. Saariaho tutkailee taas tarkasti niitä rajapintoja, joissa ilmavirta muuntuu puhaltimissa säveleksi ja paine rikkoo sävelen jousissa hälyksi.

Jotain uuttakin teos tuo Saariahon tuotantoon: suoraviivaisen svengin ja tanssillisuuden! Toisessa osassa On fire solistin ja orkesterin vuoropuhelu on niin kipakan rytminen, että Apocalyptica-yhtyeen raskasta rockia soittavat sellistitkin varmasti pitävät siitä.

Kolmas osa Awakening on arvoitus. Sellistin tulisi soittaa con amore, lemmekkäästi, mutta tunnelma on ahdistunut ja solistin uhma jo taittunut.

Neljännessä osassa Eclipse solisti Anssi Karttunen esittää kysymyksen cis-d -sävelin kahdesti, mutta orkesteri vastaa ylhäisen torjuvasti. Alkaa kolmas kysymys. Kieltääkö orkesteri kolmasti kuten Pietari Jeesuksen? Ei tällä kertaa, sillä yhteys syntyy sooloviuluun ja lopulta koko orkesteriin. Yhdessä päädytään valon sydämeen päätösosassa Heart of Light. Valon sydän on Saariaholle ilmeisesti fis-nuotti. Siitä teos alkaa ja siihen se päättyy.

Valon sydän viittaa muuhunkin. Partituurin loppuun Saariaho on kirjoittanut sitaatinT.S. EliotinThe Waste Landista.

"– en voinut puhua ja näköni petti, minä en ollut kuollut, en elävä, enkä tietänyt mistään, katsoin vain valon sydämeen" (käännös Lauri Viljanen).

Eliotin runossa tätä seuraisi saksankielinen lause Öd' und leer das Meer (meri on autio ja tyhjä), joka on lainaus Saariahonkin suosikkioopperoihin kuuluvasta Richard Wagnerin Tristanista ja Isoldesta. Niin Wagneria kuin Eliotia inspiroi taru Graalin maljasta, ja Saariahon viulukonserton nimi on Graal théâtre.


New York Times, August 16, 2008

By Anthony Tomassini

"Ms. Saariaho composed “Notes on Light,” an unconventional cello concerto, last year for the brilliant soloist here, the Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen. Organized in five movements and lasting about 30 minutes, the piece emerges as an earthy, weighty and strained dialogue between a mercurial cello and an enveloping orchestra.

At first the cello explores a tortured theme that prolongs a painful half-step melodic motif, and evolves in arching spans alive with slides, groans and slippery pitches. The orchestra, a mass of precisely layered, quivering sonorities, alternately cushions and rattles the cello.

Though the work is ominous and searching over all, there are strongly contrasting sections, as in the second movement, which erupts into spiraling orchestra riffs and fitful cello outbursts. As always in a Saariaho score, color is primary, and Mr. Karttunen showed a mastery of myriad colorings in his rhapsodic performance."


Boston Globe:

There's a lot of thought behind composer's 'Notes'

By Matthew Guerrieri, Globe Correspondent  |  February 21, 2007

Dense, shimmering harmonies shift slowly, almost imperceptibly, but acquire surprising momentum. Aggressive phrases turn in on themselves, creating a violent, uneasy stasis, frozen in shock.

With her new cello concerto, "Notes on Light," composer Kaija Saariaho plunges the listener into a sonic world at once startlingly immediate and hovering just out of earshot. Observes cellist Anssi Karttunen, who will premiere "Notes on Light" with the Boston Symphony Orchestra tomorrow, "Very few things in this piece are what they first seem."

The same could be said for Saariaho, who has emerged as a singularly important -- and increasingly popular -- contemporary composer. The Paris-based Saariaho is often cited as a leading figure of a remarkable generation of composers from her native Finland, but her music reflects a far more cosmopolitan experience. Her musical language is uncompromisingly modern, yet that language is at the service of a supremely sensitive imagination. And though her technical skill is formidable, she is loath to pin down the exact process of her creative work. In a recent phone conversation, she is direct and articulate, but demurs from speaking too specifically about individual pieces, as if reluctant to disturb their intuitive core.

"I think that in composition, you're constantly thinking and feeling," she says. "And you can't separate the two."

Saariaho's career has been a continuous effort to deepen the feeling while expanding the thinking. As a student in Helsinki, Saariaho helped found "Ears open!," an influential composer collective that sought to reinvigorate the Finnish musical tradition with avant-garde sounds. (Other members included Magnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen.) But she soon left for Germany to study with Brian Ferneyhough , an exemplar of rigorous modernism. Just going was significant, she recalls. "Leaving Finland was as important as what I found."

Saariaho met Ferneyhough at the famous Darmstadt music school, where the prevailing ideal was a complex form of the 12-tone method pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg . Saariaho was impressed by Ferneyhough's perception. "He looked at a few of my little pieces and said, 'Your heart is there, and your brain is there, but they are not communicating,' " she remembers. "Which was my feeling exactly." Although she rejected strict serialism ("It didn't correspond to my needs"), the experience was pivotal. "I found more clearly my direction," she says. "In addition to what I learned, I learned many things I did not want to do."

Later, working at IRCAM, the Parisian electronic music center founded by Pierre Boulez, Saariaho encountered spectral music. With the help of computers, composers would break down the sound of a particular instrument into its constituent acoustical parts, then use those elements as raw compositional materials, creating a deeply resonant panoply of pitch and noise both natural and disorienting. Saariaho sublimated the techniques into her own sound world . Her works of the 1980s were studies in slowly changing blocks of harmony; in "Verblendungen" (which might be translated as "Blinded By the Light"), a 1984 piece for orchestra and tape, a shattering chord slowly decays and reverberates for 13 minutes, ending in a flush of stratospheric overtones. Noise and pitch provocatively clash, and the exhilarating, shifting surface belies the static structure.

Dense, shimmering harmonies shift slowly, almost imperceptibly, but acquire surprising momentum. Aggressive phrases turn in on themselves, creating a violent, uneasy stasis, frozen in shock.

With her new cello concerto, "Notes on Light," composer Kaija Saariaho plunges the listener into a sonic world at once startlingly immediate and hovering just out of earshot. Observes cellist Anssi Karttunen , who will premiere "Notes on Light" with the Boston Symphony Orchestra tomorrow, "Very few things in this piece are what they first seem."

Karttunen first collaborated with Saariaho around this time, eventually premiering two other concerti and a number of solo pieces. "Each piece has a different personality," he says. "But what they have in common is this very delicate and fragile writing. On the page, it may not look like virtuoso writing in the usual sense, but it's very challenging. The work is figuring out how to shape the music, which shapes your technique. It's about finding all these new ways to play just one note."

Throughout the 1990s, a series of works designed around soloists brought a new focus on melody. This lyricism bloomed in Saariaho's 2000 opera "L'Amour de loin" ("Love From Afar"), a luminous, lush exploration of the legend of the 12th-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel. Saariaho says the evolution wasn't a calculated move -- "The nature of my music, that's something I don't decide" -- but the result of a restless aesthetic: "I felt that I had realized certain things, and I needed to turn my eyes in a different direction."

With "Notes on Light," commissioned by the BSO in honor of its 125th anniversary, Saariaho's music has continued to become more open and direct, says Jukka-Pekka Saraste, who will conduct the premiere : "Her style is very accessible. I certainly feel her style changed with the operatic writing."

In the first movement ("Translucent, secret"), rhapsodic lines resonate through the orchestra. In one common gesture, the strings sustain a note while moving the bow from the fingerboard, which produces a flute-like effect, to the bridge, which makes the tone harsh and metallic. That passage between pitch and noise "is the essence of her orchestral color," Saraste remarks. A bracing toccata ("On Fire") and an eerie, nocturnal scene ("Awakening") lead to a movement titled "Eclipse," in which a suddenly still cello is answered by the orchestra with mysterious, understated empathy.

The finale, a kaleidoscope revisiting the work's many sounds and ideas, ends where everything started, on a single F-sharp. "All these aspects, you eventually find them in this one note," Karttunen says. "And the note takes you away from the piece, to something else."

On the final page of the score, Saariaho includes a quote from T.S. Eliot : ". . . 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." It echoes Saariaho's own conception of music: "It goes in the places thinking cannot go."

Dancers enliven 'Fire' festival, but soloist sets concert ablaze

Published: Sunday, January 22, 2012, 7:30 PM     Updated: Monday, January 23, 2012, 12:35 AM


Ronni Reich/The Star-Ledger 

"...More compelling was “Notes on Light,” a 2007 work by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho featuring solo cellist Anssi Karttunen, to whom the work is dedicated. Karttunen’s skill and fierce, focused energy astonished — there was no mystery as to why Saariaho thought of fire when writing for him.

The work began with a single vibrating tone followed by an ominous, descending sigh — like something deflating — that frequently recurred both in the soloist’s and orchestra’s parts. Karttunen culled a fascinating range of timbres from his instrument, growling in his lower register and squawking like an electric guitar towards the top. Quick, slithering scales had an eerie plastic and thin quality.

Calling more to mind a mysterious elemental power than familiar warmth, the already strange sounds melded with shimmering waves of percussion and a portentous drumbeat. Animated marimba solos, chirping piccolo and plucked strings added to the vibrancy of the virtuoso “Fire” movement. There were small rhapsodies and viscerally powerful crescendos; the orchestra became a massive, vibrating cluster of sound.

In the final two movements, shape and direction were more difficult to ascertain. Still, the composer’s strong viewpoint was worth experiencing and the orchestra deserves credit for taking on such a fresh and inventive work.