“I hope that my music falls on as open ears as possible”

Kaija Saariaho (1952-2023) and the Berliner Philharmoniker

Kaija Saariaho
(Photo: Maarit Kytoharju)

It was exactly two years ago that the Berliner Philharmoniker gave the German premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s orchestral work Vista. The composer said in an interview that when writing the work, she had in mind the conductor Susanna Mälkki, who she had worked with for over 20 years and who conducted the work in Berlin after its premiere in Helsinki.

The iridescent, dazzling and at the same time powerful compositions of the Finnish composer have been part of the repertoire of the Berliner Philharmoniker for just as long.  In December 2001, they performed Graal Théâtre for violin and orchestra (soloist: Gidon Kremer), the first piece by Kaija Saariaho. Only a year earlier, the composer made her international breakthrough with the performance of her opera L’amour de loin at the Salzburg Festival. From then on, the student of Paavo Heininen, Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber, who is also one of the co-founders of the creative Finnish group “Ears Open”, became one of the most frequently performed composers of our time.

Iridescent, dazzling, powerful

Three years after Graal Théâtre, Sir Simon Rattle conducted performances of her orchestral work Orion, whose glistening sounds were inspired by the mythical sky hunter of the same name. This was followed by a series of commissions: in March 2006, the Berliner Philharmoniker gave the world premiere of her ethereal composition Asteroid 4179: Toutatis under the direction of Simon Rattle, followed by the premiere of Laterna magica in 2009. The title refers to the autobiography of the same name by film director Ingmar Bergman; at the same time, Kaija Saariaho was inspired by Bergman’s cinematic light direction to create very subtle, richly coloured nuances of sound. Most recently, the Berliner Philharmoniker was one of the commissioners of the orchestral work Vista mentioned above. Outside of the large orchestral concerts, her works have also been heard in chamber music performances by the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin and the Karajan Academy, who presented her oratorio La Passion de Simone in 2015.

Kaija Saariaho possessed an unerring sense for orchestral timbres, shaping sound like a sculpture and opening up new orchestral sound spaces in her works. Her style was helped by the fact that she transferred the experience she had gained with electronic sound design to instrumental music. “This helped me to find new ways to sound colours and orchestration,” the composer said. She was full of curiosity and the joy of experimentation, and wanted her music to arouse the audience’s curiosity. With the death of Kaija Saariaho in Paris on 2 June, one of the most important voices in contemporary music has fallen silent.

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