Friday, August 17, 2007

Potato, Potaato

Yesterday evening I had the good fortune to get into the dress rehearsal for the local première of Kaija Saariaho's recent stage work, La Passion de Simone, a sort of semi-staged oratorio based on the life – death, actually – of French philosopher Simone Weil. It's not my intent to review it, since this blog isn't about that. In many ways, I didn't get to hear the piece under optimum circumstances. For starters, Helsinki's Finlandia Hall was not the best place for such a reflective, ritualistic piece. I understand the economics of putting a new work by a big-name local composer in the biggest hall in town, since Saariaho has the rare ability to draw a big crowd to a new music event, but the music wasn't particularly well-served by either the acoustics, which are famously bad, or the visual setting. A church like Temppeliaukio might have worked better, but is too small to sell enough tickets to make such a large-scale performance viable. Also, I had only a vague idea of what the piece was about, and didn't have a libretto since it was a rehearsal. In hindsight, I should have read up on it a little more. The acoustics and high voices made the French text hard to understand at times, and the surtitles were rendered in an extremely poetic Finnish, meaning that the grammar was even harder to parse than normally.

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?

1 comment:

cbb said...

By odd coincidence I had just finished listening to "The Death of Simone Weil" by Darrell Katz, a Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra production. Curious that she (Simone Weil) should inspire what I'm imagining are such very, very different tributes.