Monday, February 9, 2009

Hearing anew

Helsinki's ex-biennale, then annual, once-again-biennale new music festival, Musica Nova, is on this week, with New York as its theme. We've so far had film, two chamber operas and a taut performance in a first-of-three series by New York's International Contemporary Ensemble. Though I'm not going to chronicle the festival, or review any shows per se, I had to post one commentary on the opening concert, as little will probably be said in the English-speaking world otherwise. The program last Saturday night took as its focus the urban landscape and city life, and although Steve Reich and John Cage were perhaps the most recognizeable names, the spotlight was firmly on the long-awaited première of music from Juhani Nuorvala's as-yet-unstaged Andy Warhol opera Flash Flash, with a libretto in pitch-perfect pop English by Juha Siltanen. (The performance will be made available online for a month. I'll post a link as soon as I can.)

I should add the disclaimer that Juhani is a close friend and colleague, so anything I write about his music is obviously going to be heavily biased. His opera, if that's what it really is, has a bit of a history, and took far too long to make it to the stage in any form – we got to hear the middle act of three. Flash Flash is a crazy piece of work, not so much "about" Warhol as it is set around the idea of him. It's written in just intonation, highly rhythmic, and highly lyrical, with heavy use of stage projections and lights. It was populist high art, manic and meditative, tasteless and touching, superficial and probing, all at once. Although rooted in pop idioms, one never lost the sense that it was all being guided by a highly-trained, intelligent hand, much like Warhol's art. That it managed to walk that line so well is a part of its success as a piece, I think. Above all, though, it was human, and grounded in a heartfelt emotion that seemed to resonate deeply with the audience.

What struck me most was the sense of occasion about the performance, that rare feeling of being witness to something important. It's the word I kept coming back to, and the one I used in describing my reaction to Juhani afterward. It's important music, not just in terms of what it accomplishes vis-a-vis its interaction – or lack thereof – with the conventions of the operatic genre. (It has more in common with the passion play than grand opera, really.) It's important to Finland on the local level, and to the continuing development of its ever-expanding, ever-diversifying musical tradition. It's comforting and thrilling to know that there's someone in this country writing music like this, music that sounds like nobody else's, yet is still very recognizeably Finnish in its sense of craft and architecture. It's a small community here, where everyone basically knows each other and their work. Our community just got a bit richer through this new niche in our art form. Let's shine a light on it, and get it to the stage in the form it deserves as soon as possible.