A fortnight ago, the BBC Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 80th birthday with a concert including a pair of premières, both concertos: one for percussion by Stephen McNeff (composed for the boisterous O Duo) and a clarinet concerto from Kaija Saariaho.
McNeff instructs the orchestra to establish the mood, the first few minutes of the opening movement filled with big, emphatic gestures. The contrast of the soloists’ entry—starting simply, using only their hands to slap, brush and tickle the instruments—is massive, and makes for a highly effective start. Influences quickly fly in both directions; the soloists echo and maintain the considerable momentum already established; in return, the percussion’s abrupt, restless material leads to hectic, spikey figurations in the orchestra. A marimba idea heralds a dramatic reduction in tempo, and with it a lyrical episode, in which the strings’ music is especially rich, their harmonies familiar but searching. The remaining few minutes are a tussle between these two moods, the more frantic ideas thrusting forth when they can; and while it’s the softer ripostes that ultimately claim the movement, the brass and timpani colour its conclusion with some brief, rather obstreperous gestures.
The central movement begins, seemingly, in medias res; a vast clatter and chattering in the orchestra, topped by unsettling high melodic shapes from the horns, sets things in motion, quieting as abruptly as it began. Hushed strings take over, in front of which increasingly insistent bells and chimes ring out; it takes on a modal flavour, and a series of wind melodies begins, starting with the oboe. The percussion’s emphasis on metallic sounds continues in an extended vibraphone episode; throughout this section of the movement, McNeff nicely keeps the focus in flux, the spotlight rapidly passing from soloists to orchestra and back again. There are times when the music teeters ingenuously on the brink of the cheesey abyss, but just as it gets most precarious, a few crashes and wallops throw the material back into safer, if somewhat oblique, territory.
Without a pause, the work’s finale begins with rapid repetitions on the xylophone, igniting the whole orchestra into a flurry of driving activity. All of a sudden, the brass weigh in, their jazz-inflected chorale triggering a bizarre episode that hurtles through the valley of pastiche, never resting long enough actually to settle on a definitive style. It’s a risky bit of writing (not in a good sense), but somehow, McNeff gets away with it, bustling the players beyond into a more fragmented section dominated with a hocketed display between the soloists. Through a period of repose and out the other side, into a similar stylistic maelstrom, the percussion duo gets ever more prominent, turning to whistles and sirens. Once again things stop, this time for a marimba cadenza, and by now the stop-start tone of the movement is working against it, making subsequent pace (blunted as it is by more lyricism finding its way in) seem forced, even faked. Unfortunately, this just leaves the breathless closing flourish sounding hollow, exhilarating but empty.
Saariaho’s concerto was composed for the brilliant Finnish clarinettist Kari Kriikku. Its title, D’OM LE VRAI SENS, comes from a series of six tapestries exploring the senses, each of which is assigned a movement in the work (NB. without a score, some of the transitions between movements are difficult to discern).
The opening movement, “L’Ouïe” (Hearing), creates a remarkably potent sense of foreboding, the orchestra playing a series of soft, halting phrases laden with glissandi and obtuse chords. The clarinet emerges from these shadows at an astonishing altitude, more like a distantly wailing saxophone than anything else. It grows in clarity, but only gets more wraith-like in tone, its music (aided by the soloist being physically “somewhere in the halls … not to be seen, only heard”) materialising as if from a parallel dimension. As the piece moves on to explore sight, “La Vue”, the orchestra, in Saariaho’s words, “gets into position behind the solo instrument to develop the musical motifs this supplies”. The orchestra does, indeed, echo aspects of the clarinet’s calls, yet while their material may be closer to home, it’s no more reassuring for that, continuing to explore only the fringes of its ideas, enchanted by gentle bells and harps, and very distantly underpinned by the basses. A greater sense of reality and substance is brought in the third movement “L’Odorat” (Smell), the clarinet’s trills declaring both energy and intent. The energy is infectious, rousing all the players into the first material properly to display a pulse. Nonetheless, the soloist remains incongruent through much of its material, however, and it’s impressive how Saariaho establishes a context for it in the orchestra that somehow enables it to sit comfortably. Despite the changes, it’s still undeniably strange material, the clarinet glissandi as wild and implacable as before; this is, in fact, among the most supremely unrestrained, hyperexpressive material ever written for the clarinet, keening and roaring its music with utter abandon.
Touch is the focus of the fourth movement, the soloist now located directly behind the orchestra, moving towards the front. Its obvious position is the cue for a sudden change in manner, declamatory and, at times, almost playful. Still preoccupied in its upper registers (having barely descended from them since the start), the clarinet practically dances atop the orchestra which, for its part, seems uncertain at first what to make of the shift in personality. “Le Goût” (Taste) continues without a break, beginning with a melodic collapse from the soloist—squeaking maniacally—instigating more earnest material from the orchestra, material that ultimately works to buoy up the clarinet; episodes like this demonstrate how interconnected Saariaho has made soloist and orchestra, an incredible achievement considering the outlandish music constantly pouring out of the solo instrument. The last movement, “A mon seul Désir” (According to my desire alone) opens in tantalising fashion, restrained multiphonics from the clarinet answered by an orchestra seemingly transfixed. A glockenspiel pulses to one side, and soon attracts company, but not the soloist, launching into a series of impassioned—and, at moments, violent—outpourings entirely independent of the delicate orchestral lattice beneath. It’s the work’s most hypnotic movement, and also its most moving, the clarinet’s exit preceded by an amazingly heartfelt cacophony of notes.
Stephen McNeff – ConcertO Duo (World Première)
Kaija Saariaho – D’OM LE VRAI SENS (UK Première)
The form was inspired by six medieval tapestries, The Lady and the Unicorn, in which each tapestry depicts, with rich symbolism, the five senses and a ‘sixth sense’ – whatever that is (emotion? love?). I had already seen the tapestries in the Musée national du Moyen Age (the Medieval Museum) in Paris while seeking material for my first opera, L’amour de loin, and their richness also inspired the exhibition La Dame à Licorne I held with Raija Malka the artist in 1993.
The tapestries are named after the five senses, and I have titled the movements of my concerto accordingly: L’Ouïe (Hearing), La Vue (Sight), Le Toucher (Touch), L’Odorat (Smell), Le Goût (Taste) and the ambiguous A mon seul Désir, which could be translated as “To my only desire”. The name and subject matter of the sixth tapestry have been widely interpreted and examined. What interested me in particular was an article* about the meanings hidden in the letters of the name of the sixth tapestry. One of these is D’OM LE VRAI SENS. This is medieval French and alludes both to the senses and to the true meaning of humankind.
All this was, of course, just the initial impetus for composition. Using the names of the different senses as the headings for the movements gave me ideas for how to handle the musical material and for the overall drama. In the first movement (Hearing) the calmly breathing orchestra is interrupted by a call from the clarinet. ‘Sight’ opens up a more mobile landscape in which the orchestra gets into position behind the solo instrument to develop the musical motifs this supplies. ‘Smell’ is colour music. I associate the harmony with scent; it is immediately recognisable intuitively and the impression is too quick for thought. The clarinet languidly spreads its colour over the orchestra, where it hovers, transforming as it passes from one instrument to another.
In ‘Touch’ the soloist arouses each instrumental section in turn from the pulseless, slightly dreamy state of the previous movement. This is the concerto’s liveliest movement, and the most virtuosic in the traditional sense, and the clarinet and orchestra engage in a dialogical relationship. The fifth movement (Taste) is dominated by rough surfaces, tremolos and trills, which the clarinet serves to the orchestra around it.
While composing the last movement I experienced a sense of entering a new, intimate and timeless dimensionality. The end of a work is always the last chance to discover its quintessence. I often approach it by stripping the music down to its most ascetic elements. Here, too.
It came as a surprise even to me that the work began to come alive in its space, and that the clarinet – itself a unicorn – plays only some of its music in the soloist’s position. This appropriation of space became an inherent element of the work at the composition stage.
D’OM LE VRAI SENS is dedicated to Kari Kriikku, whose vast experience and frequent consultations were invaluable to me in composing the solo part.
The subject matter is the five senses and the ‘sixth sense’. These six tapestries give their names to the six parts of the piece, in the following order:
La Vue (Sight),
Le Toucher (Touch),
Le Goût (Taste),
A mon seul Désir (According to my desire alone).
Much could be said about the symbolism and metaphors in these artworks, as they are especially rich. More information can be found on the website of the Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris (www.museemoyenage.fr), where the tapestries are exhibited.
In this composition the solo clarinettist adopts different positions in the hall. The general plan, to be adapted to suit different halls, is as follows:
Part I: L’Ouïe: the clarinettist is somewhere in the hall, among the audience or behind it, not to be seen, only heard.
Part II: La Vue: the clarinettist approaches the stage.
Part III: L’Odorat: the clarinettist plays behind the orchestra, on a podium if needed.
Part IV: Le Toucher: the clarinettist starts playing behind the orchestra and approaches the front of the stage.
Part V: Le Goût: the clarinettist sits in the middle of the orchestra or in front, on a podium if needed.
Part VI: A mon seul désir: the clarinettist stands in front of the orchestra and leaves the stage. The violin parts have also been written so that the musicians can leave their places, if wanted.