Sunday, January 25, 2009

romancing myself into a tired Finn

The craziness of the past few weeks is mostly over, at least in terms of music. I survived, and came out with little more injury than some sore (and calloused, my god) fingertips and a painful twitch in my back. Not bad, considering some of the possibilities I considered.

Interesting fact: of the three concerts that I performed in or saw this week, all of them involved Finnish people. Odd? Yes. Does it mean anything? No, except it reminded me of the Sandra Cisneros poem I misquoted for the title (Small Madness, from Loose Woman)and gave a me a reason to cover all three performances at once.

The first concert was with dal niente, the new music ensemble that I play with on a semi-regular basis. Our January 20th concert consisted of music entirely by one composer, Kaija Saariaho. A local college had, apparently, flown her in from Finland for some sort of residency and we timed our concert so that she would be able to attend. Playing a piece for the person who actually wrote it can be thrilling and alarming in equal parts, especially when that person is fairly famous within their circle. There was a little tension when she entered during our dress rehearsal, but she seemed (calmly) happy with our interpretation of her 20-year-old piece, Lichtbogen, as well as the other solo and smaller ensemble pieces that made up the program. She was actually supposed to be a participant in the Lichtbogen performance, manipulating an electronic patch and various sorts of amplification (we were mic-ed to the teeth), but unfortunately the publishers had neglected to send the patch and subsequent efforts to retrieve it electronically were not terribly successful. Luckily, the piece stands more or less on its own.

It's an intense thing to play; Saariaho creates so many different sound qualities for each instrument that the texture is amazing, but that effect requires the instrumentalists to follow at least five different directions for nearly every note played. Here's how I described my part in an email to a friend: "How loud? Is there a crescendo or decrescendo? Where on the string is my bow? (By placing the bow near the bridge, the piece of wood that holds the strings up, you get a kind of glassy whistling sound; by going the other way, far away from the bridge, you get a kind of hollow fuzzy sound.) Is there overpressure? (By pressing with more force than the string needs, you get a kind of creaking sound. this piece had a lot of that.) Am I vibrating, or not, or more than normal?" On top of that, I'm trying to count evenly to seven over a four pattern, or whatever. Whew! I was really glad that I managed to do the right thing for as much of the piece as I did, but I certainly was holding my breath through much of it. She was apparently quite happy with the performance, which was a really great feeling.

My second Finnish experience took place as an audience member, not a performer, at a CSO concert. At this point, I think I'm going to use initials to avoid the inevitable google of "CSO+"conductor's name"" just because I'll feel more comfortable writing freely in a somewhat more anonymous manner and because he's fairly famous. So anyway, I saw the CSO, conducted by a Finnish conductor and composer, E-P S. Part of my interest was personal, as I was going to be playing under this conductor's baton with the Civic Orchestra in just a few days. My impression? Dancey. A lot of movement. For players, that can go either way in terms of clarity, and so my initial (mean-spirited?) impression was that I was watching somebody who played primarily (or at least more than was strictly necessary) to the audience, not the orchestra. But I tried to reserve my judgement and enjoy the show and wait for my own personal experience with E-P S before I decided anything.

Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste was my favorite piece on the program. I'd never heard much of it on recording, and never live, and it's quite an experience. The string section is split in half and kind of arranged in a mirror image on the stage around a central piano and celeste. The first movement is fairly dynamically flat and smoothly seamless, but ooooohhh so full of tension. Harmonic tension, dissonance, and a quiet sort of menace that put me on the edge of my seat. The instruments enter one by one, forming a sort of fugue that just blew me away. The rest of the program did less for me: Arvo Paart's fourth symphony, and Debussy's La Mer, a tone poem about the sea. For me, it's kind of all flash, but I also haven't played it well personally and that tends to influence my evaluation. I'm very much a performer when I listen to classical music.

My final Finnish experience came when I finally played under E-P S himself. We played Mahler 9, the piece that has been killing me for upwards of two weeks. It's very difficult work, in terms of notes and also because, honestly, I just didn't understand it all that well. It's complex, and it requires so much concentration and for such an extended period of time (an hour and twenty minutes) that I frankly didn't have much brain left over to analyze structure or much of anything else. Every page has at least one "oh shit" moment, and some (like large portions of the second movement) are some of the most ridiculous orchestral parts I've ever seen. But after all that, it's actually pretty awesome. It was Mahler's last completed orchestra work, and it ends with this heartbreaking slow movement that finally, reluctantly, dies away with a repeated figure in (!!!) the violas. It's beautiful. And for all that my overall opinion of E-P S is still quite mixed (I'm highly skeptical of his rehearsal technique, but he's funny and charming and conveyed some passion during at least parts of the performance, which redeems him somewhat, at least as a person), I enjoyed playing. It was nice to feel moved by something. It was a good way to (kind of) end my Civic career (again) (maybe).

And now I'm done! Time to eat a mocha ricotta muffin and enjoy a cup of coffee before something else starts up. It's a dinner party kind of week, and I have to take my moments of freedom where I can find them.


Lauren said...

omg! my cousin Raija lives in Chicago and is going to the Chicago School of Violin Making and she's Finnish! I wonder if she was at any of the events you went to. Maybe I should e-introduce you two. :)
It sounds like an awesome and tiring week. and i'm making chocolate ricotta muffins tomorrow morning. the mollie katzen recipe. :)

ammie said...

Haha, you have a Finnish cousin? And I'm entirely thankful that things are slowing down!
And the mocha ricotta muffins are my friend Rose-Anne's adaptation of the Mollie Katzen ones, and they are utterly fantabulous :)