Friday, June 02, 2023

Kaija Saariaho

Kaija Saariaho and librettist/poet Amin Maalouf
Santa Fe, July, 2008
Photo by Lisa Hirsch
They're listening intently to Peter Sellars (not shown)

Terrible news this morning: the great Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho has died, age 70, of glioblastoma diagnosed in 2021. This explains why her daughter represented her at an event a couple of months ago, where she was awarded an important title by the president of Finland.

She was among the best and most important composers of her generation, perhaps best known in the U.S. for her operas. Adriana Mater had its U.S. premiere at Santa Fe Opera in 2008; some years later, the Met produced L'amor de Loin, her first opera. Her most recent opera, Innocence, is coming to San Francisco Opera next year and to the Met in a future season. Both companies are co-commissioners.

I heard a number of her chamber works in 2007, when they were performed at Disney Hall in LA as part of the Sibelius Unbound Festival; I reviewed Adriana the following year.

She was important to so many; to other composers, to many critics, and of course to her friends and family. Deepest condolences to her family; her husband and children issued the following statement this morning:

We are crushed to announce that Kaija Saariaho has passed this morning. She slept away peacefully in her own bed, at home in Paris. As her family, we are issuing this as our solestatement, and request the peace of our time of mourning be respected. 
In February 2021, Kaija was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer, found from the onset to be uncurable and lethal. With characteristically strong determination, she fought daily to both slow its growth and live fully. The multiplying tumors did not affect her cognitive faculties until the terminal phase of her illness; they were located in the area controlling her motor skills on the right side of her body, which led to growing difficulties in walking and talking, in turn exacerbated by ensuing falls and broken bones. Kaija's appearances in a wheelchair or walking with a cane have prompted many questions, to which she answered elusively: following her physician's advice, she kept her illness a private matter, in order to maintain a positive mindset and keep the focus on her work. Her case should however help raise awareness concerning the nature and detection of brain tumors. It should also highlight the plight of immunocompromised individuals: twice Kaija has contracted Covid in public events where insufficient measures were taken, if at all, to protect the most fragile among us. Her experience as a wheelchair user also made her more aware of the inadequacy of many locations she visited, including cultural venues. All of this she would now want publicized. She also hoped that, through the experimental treatment protocols she underwent at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, she could, on a small scale, help advance research on conditions such as hers. 
Kaija, who was born in 1952 in Helsinki, Finland, died prematurely at the age of 70, but lived a full life. Her early trajectory brought her from the avant-garde music circles of Finland to the European stage between Freiburg, Darmstadt and Paris, giving her the opportunity to contribute to the golden age of computer music, and later integrate a new understanding of harmony and psychoacoustics into the tradition of modern orchestra and opera writing. She achieved universal recognition among her peers and both public and critical success, all while never ceasing to challenge herself to explore new directions. 
During the time of her illness, Kaija had the joy of being surrounded by a close circle of faithful friends and collaborators, and even of expanding it. She was involved in many new productions of her music, and in the premiere performances of her latest works: the Saarikoski Songs, the chamber music piece Semafor, the orchestra work Vista, the madrigal Reconnaissance, the re-creation of her first music theatre piece Study for Life, and her acclaimed last opera Innocence. She also did not relent in her commitment to teaching and passing the torch. One of her last endeavors was to lead the jury of an organ composition contest she initiated for the inauguration of the Helsinki Music Centre's new organ, an instrument she helped fund.
The final months of Kaija's life were devoted to the completion of her trumpet concerto. HUSH, which will be premiered in Helsinki on August 24* by Verneri Pohjola, with Susanna Mälkki conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Kaija is survived by all of us who loved her and were blessed with her relentless generosity and insightful artistic support. But more importantly, we will all be survived by the bold, sensitive, exploratory music she has created, termed a classic of this century already in her lifetime. 

Jean-Baptiste Barrière, composer and multimedia artist, her husband; Aleksi Barrière, writer and director, her son; Alisa Neige Barrière, conductor and violinist, her daughter 



Harvey said...

A reminder: next week the San Francisco Symphony is offering a semi-staged performance of Saariaho's Adriana Mater directed by Peter Sellars and conducted by Esa Pekka Salonen.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Indeed. I have my tickets right here....

David Bratman said...

I'm going to that one too. Be aware (as SFS has generally discontinued preconcert talks) that Sellars will be speaking an hour before each performance.

I read of Saariaho's death in the paper this morning. I'm grateful she got the coverage she deserved.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Joshua Barone's Times obit is outstanding.

I might pass on Peter or might not. I remember you trying out some of her songs years ago and not caring for them. Did you like music you heard subsequently?

David Bratman said...

Some. Of works I've heard in concert over the last few years, I found Orion and Aile du songe interesting but not particularly compelling. However, I really liked Fleurs de neige, which I reviewed in SFCV as "an immensely appealing piece, a most effective use of Saariaho’s talents and artistic inclinations." By which I mean, she wrote in the same idiom as I'd heard before, but this time I found it effective.

And that's why I'm willing to give Adriana Mater a shot.

Michael Good said...

Even if you don't like Adriana Mater, please be sure to see Innocence next season. I had not cared very much for the few works of hers I had heard before. But I found Innocence extraordinarily powerful in London a few weeks ago. I was really looking forward to what would come next.