Despite all this, I enjoyed it immensely, though it took awhile to figure out why. I generally like Saariaho's music, and even love a lot of it. This piece featured her most detailed, richly textured orchestral writing since her earlier diptych Du cristal... à la fumée, though in the much more meditative, lyrical vein she's been mining in the last few years. Even though it's largely static, there's always something moving under the surface, and the scoring, as always, had a lovely transparence to it.
The crux of this post concerns a review I found of the piece from its London première. Andrew Clements (fie!), who seemed not overly impressed with the piece, writes:
"But despite a few vivid, short-lived climaxes, the general pacing is measured and unvaried; a character whose life was so much in her mind offers few obvious dramatic highlights."
I find the way individual perceptions work fascinating. Before even reading this, I'd commented to a friend that, although I understood the rationale for having climaxes at certain points in the piece, I would have preferred to have the musical landscape be entirely featureless. The colors were so absorbing that I would have been happy to sit there floating in it, like watching light shimmer on the surface of a lake, as in this painting of Klimt I recently viewed live for the first time. Can I chalk this up to European versus North American artistic values? Protracted quiet and stasis seem to be vaguely taboo in Europe, as if it's somehow sinful or decadent for a piece to lack drama and activity, and the American composers who are most valued here tend to be on the more dynamic, explosive side, whatever their aesthetic stripe. (I think Feldman gets a pass because his music is atonal.) To me, though, the criticism of a piece for lacking the obvious types of drama – big climaxes, jagged lines, overt emotion – is just a knee-jerk reaction in favor of the more traditional signposts of heightened emotion. It's entirely possible for a piece to be dramatic without actually being loud. But then, so much criticism of new music tends to be about what a piece isn't, rather than what it is. What it comes down to is that whatever expectations the critic brought into the performance about what should happen weren't met by the piece, and rather than take a positive point of view based on the experience the new work actually offers, the piece is deemed unsuccessful. Can we please stop doing that?