Rarely, however, has one or other of the pieces deployed the full force of the orchestra. “Vista” opens with an oboe game; “Innocence”, with just a handful of bass instruments before the entry of a howling bassoon. No note is foreign, in part because there aren’t many to start with. Like Flaubert’s sentences, Saariaho’s writing is here conceived with the economy of an essentialist. Only the right word remains.
But for maximum effect. And this is where the wisdom of Saariaho’s most recent music resides, which resembles the culmination of a master’s practice. For decades she has questioned the possibilities of acoustic and electronic sounds: how they are produced and transformed, how they can trick the mind and awaken the senses. She too, as she told pianist Kirill Gerstein in a recent online conversation, has spent those years perfecting his own kind of harmony, free from the restrictions of his upbringing in the era of serialism.
“Vista” has explosively awe-inspiring moments, but doesn’t count on them for its power. Instead, its allure and tension builds up from slowly moving textures, like a driver’s view of an open landscape. “Innocence” is by nature more dramatic but reaches his emotions exacerbated by the absence as much as by the exclamation.
A propulsive collective memory game – about an international school shootout and its traumatic long tail – “Innocence” is an opera ripped from the headlines for our time. But it also has the makings of a classic, drawing the universal of the personal in its treatment of grief and forgiveness; it fits perfectly on the shelf alongside “Jenufa” and “Wozzeck”.
Sofi Oksanen’s libretto unveils its mysteries as it evolves fluidly through years, languages and relationships – with a cast of 13 singers and actors, each identifiable by a unique musical palette. Sounds like a lot, especially with a large orchestra and choir, but “Innocence” is a triumph of restraint and readability. Masterful in his command of such forces, Saariaho writes steadfastly in the service of drama. And the scale follows.
“Innocence” is intended for major houses in Europe and the United States, including the Metropolitan Opera. “Vista”, too, is always traveling. Thus, Saariaho should continue to be a highlight of the year for classical music, for years to come.