From Finland, Compelling Compositions


* * * * SALONEN: “LA Variations,” “Five Images After Sappho,” “Giro,” “Mania,” “Gambit” Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Anssi Karttunen, cello; London Sinfonietta; Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Sony Classical

* * * 1/2 SAARIAHO: “Graal Theatre,” “Chateau de L’me,” “Amers” Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Gidon Kremer, violin; Anssi Karttunen, cello; Finnish Radio Chamber Choir; BBC Symphony Orchestra, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Avanti Chamber Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor Sony

* * * SAARIAHO: PRISMA “Lohn,” “Pres,” “NoaNoa,” “Six Japanese Gardens” Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Anssi Karttunen, cello; Camilla Hoitenga, flute; Florent Jodelet, percussion Montaigne Nave


That a small, out-of-the-way country has been able to produce so many world-class musicians is often called the Finnish miracle. And it is all the more a miracle when it comes to composers of the generation of Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg, who are between 40 and 50 and are lately making a very strong impression just about everywhere.

In the case of Salonen, Los Angeles has also played a significant role. As a young composer Salonen was a flashy, clever modernist. He’s still flashy, clever and modern, but an alluring new dimension of lavish lyricism has been added to the mix, which gives the impression of worlds opening up.

Much has already been written in these pages about “LA Variations,” composed for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and it sounds spectacular on this recording. “Five Images After Sappho,” commissioned by the Ojai Music Festival, has also been performed locally a couple of times, but not with Dawn Upshaw, for whom it was intended and who brings a girlish sense of wonderment to these captivating songs.

“Giro” and “Gambit” are brief flashes of orchestral brilliance, while “Mania,” a chamber cello concerto, not yet heard in Los Angeles, is a stunningly hyperactive display piece for the stunning cellist Anssi Karttunen.


Saariaho, who is a few years Salonen’s senior, is a more severe, intellectual composer than Salonen. Yet there has been a softening too in her style, which culminated a year ago in her eloquent opera “L’Amour de Loin.”

“Graal Theatre,” a half-hour violin concerto, is ferocious music at times, but it offers a good demonstration of Saariaho’s noted ear for instrumental color. The cello concerto “Amers” finds Karttunen, as in Salonen’s concerto, sawing away on the kind of impossibly fast and difficult music he seems to eat for breakfast. The song cycle “Chateau de L’me,” for Upshaw again, is a study for the opera, and here we discover the poetic intensity, the rapt lyricism and the extreme beauty newly crept into her music.

“Prisma,” which includes a CD and a CD-ROM, makes a useful companion set for anyone who wants to delve more deeply into Saariaho’s sound world. The CD reveals her gift for enticing surging colors from electronic sources, in works for cello, soprano, flute and percussion and electronics.

The elaborate CD-ROM takes a patient computer user on a long and convoluted multimedia voyage into her works, their performances and some of the theory behind them--there are 15 hours of material. Particularly useful is an analysis of “Amers,” the cello concerto on the Sony disc.


* * * 1/2 ANDRE PREVIN: “Diversions/Songs” Barbara Bonney and Renee Fleming, sopranos; Vienna Philharmonic; London Symphony Orchestra; Andre Previn, piano and conductor Deutsche Grammophon

Salonen was not the first composer to become a Los Angeles Philharmonic music director. His predecessor was Andre Previn (and long before either of them, Otto Klemperer, music director in the ‘30s, was also a composer).

Previn made his name as a film composer and excellent jazz pianist in the ‘50s before turning to conducting. But as the Philharmonic’s music director in the ‘80s, he could not be persuaded to revisit his early film or jazz haunts in his music or music-making.

Now, at 72, he is improvising up a storm again at jazz clubs, and he is composing in a comfortably multi-stylist manner. “Diversions"--a recent subtle, sharp, witty 25-minute suite in four movements--reveals many Previns, from the blues film composer to the outstanding interpreter of Copland, Britten and Shostakovich.


His late vocal music is literate and eventful. “Sallie Chisum Remembers Billy the Kid” (a setting of Michael Ondaatje’s poem about a prostitute’s view of the outlaw, written for Barbara Bonney) and “The Giraffes Go to Hamburg” (a sad, troubling look at animals in captivity taken from Isak Dinesen’s “Out of Africa” and written for Renee Fleming) show Previn’s ability not only to make beautiful voices radiate, but to tell, in effective understatement, a tale in tones.

It has been more than a decade now since Previn, who had a falling-out with Philharmonic management, has been estranged from Los Angeles. It is time to welcome him back to this coast from time to time.

* * 1/2 ANTHONY DAVIS: “Tania” Cynthia Aaronson-Davis, Avery Brooks, Thomas Young and other vocalists; Episteme; Rand Steiger, conductor Koch

Some Americans are going to find Anthony Davis’ “opera of abduction and revolution,” which was written in 1992 for Philadelphia’s American Music Theater Festival, hard to take right now. It comes with a parental advisory warning for the explicit language in Michael John LaChiusa’s libretto; a warning for content concerning terrorist activity might also have been added.


Unlike John Adams’ more thoughtful and thought-provoking terrorist opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” “Tania,” which is the story of Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, rubs raw nerves. It is a lashing out at America at its most materialistic and banal. But it is also, in its curious, surreal way, a more naive celebration of America than Adams’ opera, or at least a hope that such a celebration might one day be possible.

There are lines in this opera that are certain to startle. When Cinque, the SLA leader, calls out in an angry aria, “I’m the smoke in your jumbo jet/I’m the bomb at your Super Bowl,” he wins no sympathy. But these opera makers are roughest on Hearst, here a materialist media maven who flashes back to her captivity in the SLA closet. She has a weird imagination and weird things happen--her parents, for instance, turn into Betty Ford and Fidel Castro.

But what makes the opera intriguing is the dreamlike music, which explains absolutely nothing. Davis is a composer ever ready to catch the ear unawares. He has jazz and academic roots (Princeton-educated, he now teaches at UC San Diego), and he has fashioned an intricate compositional style out of many worlds, ranging from modern jazz and Minimalism to atonal and 12-tone composition and Asian music. He cannot be identified by any one style, although he has much that is gripping to say in many different ones.

And maybe that is the disconcerting point, that we cannot settle on anything in what still appears an inexplicable incident. Cynthia Aaronson-Davis, the composer’s wife, sings the title role with compelling expression.