Review: Kaija Saariaho explores a SoCal ‘Vista’ with LA Phil

The last time she was in LA three years ago, composer Kaija Saariaho drove along the coast. The Finnish composer was enthusiastic about the performance of her harp concerto “Trans” by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the direction of Principal Guest Conductor Susanna Mälkki. Saariaho had finished her shocking opera “Innocence” and was about to begin a new orchestral piece for Mälkki, for which LA Phil was to be co-commissioner. A little inspiration wouldn’t hurt.

As the composer writes in her program note for “Vista”, which was premiered last weekend by Mälkki and the LA Phil in the USA, the many striking “views” along the drive to San Diego proved to be formative for her latest work. Saariaho has a striking visual sensitivity. As an extraordinary musical colorist, she has a knack for capturing beauty in sound, which has earned her a loyal fan base. The Halloween matinee performance I heard at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday proved ethereal and, yes, haunting.

While “Vista” is essentially an abstract study of the transformation of an ever-changing musical landscape of melodic shapes, textures, timbres and harmonies, an inevitable sense of foreboding permeates its wacky atmosphere. Take this ride today and hop off the 405 in San Pedro and your eyes will be on ocean-damaging freighters being held back further than the eye can see and polluting trucks galore. Another station, Huntington Beach, is home to the terrible oil spill from not so long ago. The first real glimpse of the 5 of our magnificent coastline is on the beach of San Onofre, where an old nuclear reactor with its 3.6 million pound hoard of nuclear waste appears 30 meters from a rising sea worldwide.

As a composer whose music has sung of the elements for a long time – “True Fire” and “Earth’s Shadows” have both been played at LA Phil in recent years – Saariaho has now consciously or unconsciously captured the sound of vanishing prospects.

“Vista” lasts about 25 minutes and consists of two parts – “Horizons” and “Targets” – and begins with a fascinating, long and nasal oboe melody. This is soon underpinned by strings delivering Saariaho’s “spectral” harmonies, a series of complex interactions of creepy, high-pitched and half-heard notes that can stimulate the listener’s nervous system in unpredictable ways, be it excitement, fear or anger.

Similar to a trip on the 5, these musical views are interrupted. Loudly bundled wind instruments and brass instruments together with trilling and sliding strings offer little rest. But a long, meditative, trance-like stretch lowers the temperature and signals the end of the horizon. The daydream is interrupted by the beginning of “targets” when the horizon turns into shards of sound. “Vista” ends in peace, but not in peace. As is so often the case with Saariaho’s music, it continues long afterwards.

That was exactly what Mälkki seemed to have had prophetically in mind. She hasn’t been to LA Phil for nearly two years due to pandemic cancellations, but has been active ever since. She had an online pandemic presence with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, of which she is chief conductor, and you can watch the world premiere of “Vista” last spring on Vimeo, played by a detached orchestra with no audience. This was followed by another performance of “Vista” with the Berlin Philharmonic (to be seen in the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall). She also directed the triumphant premiere of “Innocence” in Aix-en-Provence this summer.

Mälkki’s new Helsinki Philharmonic recording of Béla Bartók’s music for strings, percussion and celesta, along with the concerto for orchestra, is stunning. Her name is mentioned more and more often when large orchestras are looking for new music directors, as was the case with the New York Philharmonic. Mälkki’s appearances in LA Phil can only raise her profile, and she’ll be back for a second program at Disney this weekend.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Italian soloist Beatrice Rana was the unlikely work that followed “Vista”. But Mälkki’s post-break performance of Alexander Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy was so grand, deafening, and daringly overwhelming that it was stunned to perfection for those of us ecstatic enough to experience it.

Even the Tchaikovsky chestnut was played for power. This is where Rana thundered, who because of her full tone and finesse has a large fan base. She had to; thundered Mälkki. The dialogues between piano and winds were sharp and edgy.

In the immoderate “Poem of Ecstasy”, a solo violin sings of love. A huge orchestra lifts and breaks out. Deep metal and the Disney organ make the floor vibrate and massage everyone’s feet. Percussion doesn’t take prisoners.

It wasn’t for everyone; Several people left during the break. But “Ecstasy” was prescribed to the willing here. It’s never less than its title suggests, but I’ve never heard it played more convincingly – and tastier! – splendor.

In a poignant tone, LA Phil pianist Joanne Pearce Martin performed a moving solo performance of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” in memory of Ginny Mancini. As one of the orchestra’s most loyal and longstanding supporters, Mancini died at the end of October at the age of 97 and we will miss us very much.

Los Angeles Philharmonic

What: Susanna Mälkki conducts Reich, Adams and Rachmaninow
When: Saturday 8 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m.
Tickets: $ 55- $ 192
Info: (323) 850-2000,

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