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Introducing Kaija Saariaho

And Vers toi qui es si loin (Towards you who is so far away)


Our final concert of the New Beginnings season showcases music by the multi-award winning composer Kaija Saariaho.

Hailing from Finland but now based in France, her music has been performed worldwide, from the New York Philharmonic to the Châtelet Theatre in Paris, and she’s received praise not just from critics but from from audiences too – in 2019 she was voted the greatest living composer in a BBC Music Magazine Poll.

Her music is, as is so often the case, hard to describe. She has been influenced by what’s called Spectralism, which is all about using the acoustic properties of sound as a basis for composition. In perhaps more general terms her music is characterised by rich, complex musical textures. It’s ethereal, dreamlike, often presenting the listener with a shimmering, hypnotic, transcendent and slightly ungraspable musical picture. Once you’ve heard it, it’s instantly recognisable as Saariaho. We can’t really put it any better than critic Tom Service who said:

“To journey into Saariaho’s music is to be confronted with the darkest and most dazzling dimensions of your subconscious, and glimpses of the existential journeys she has made”

Amazingly for a composer whose music is so celebrated, and whose work is often so cerebral, her family did not have an artistic bent. Her father worked in the metal industry, and her mother looked after the family’s three children. Studying in the early 1970’s also meant that Kaija not only stood out for her music, but also as being a female composer – she was the only woman in her composition class.

She encountered music pressure to conform to the compositional norms of the time, but she wanted to plough her own furrow. In the 1980’s she alighted on the IRCAM centre in Paris, which specialises in experiments in electronic and electro-acoustic music. This was to set her compositional direction, and many of her works have since fused electronics with more conventional instrumentation.

In 2000 her opera L’Amour du Loin (Love from Afar) was premiered at the Salzburg Festival. Sixteen years later it went on to be first opera by a female composer in over 100 years to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The opera became something of a global hit being performed in the USA, UK, Switzerland, Germany, Finland, Norway, France and Canada, and was inspired by the story of a 12th century prince known for his ‘love from afar’ songs dedicated to a Tropoli countess.  The piece featured in our concert, Vers toi qui es si loin, a UK premiere, draws upon the final aria of the opera, and features a beautiful, fragile violin line spun over a delicate crystalline orchestral accompaniment – a moment of reflection and pause between two the heavyweight bookends of the rest of the programme, Wagner and Beethoven.

Hear Saariaho’s Vers toi qui es si loin (Towards you who is so far away) on Friday 25 June, performed by Royal Northern Sinfonia and Maria Włoszczowska.