The Boston Symphony Orchestra is celebrating its 125th season with commissions of new works from Charles Wuorinen, Kaiha Saariaho and Gunther Schuller, a group bound to bring stylistic diversity to the collective task. Last weekend it was Saariaho’s turn. In an age when many an American composer has progressed from thorny modernism to post-Romantic accessibility, the Finnish Saariaho has remained true to her modernist convictions and in so doing become the darling of critics at odds with the prevailing American trend. Her Notes on Light for cello and orchestra, heard in its world premiere with the formidable Anssi Karttunen as soloist, gives more evidence of the finely judged sonorities and command of instrumental resources that set her above others of her ilk.
The five-movement, 20-minute work, which behaves intermittently like a concerto, began with a meandering movement that seemed to function as a slow introduction, particularly given the movement that followed, a vigorous piece full of virtuosic passagework for the soloist. But the latter was the only movement that approached concerto orthodoxy, for most of the rest offered the kind of music where novel and sometimes interesting sounds take precedence over syntactic discourse. Saariaho didn’t want to write a conventional concerto, and there is no reason she should, but Notes on Light left me wanting more substance and a more assertive voice.
The Saariaho was the centrepiece of a programme that on paper seemed to lack audience appeal yet proved quite satisfying. Debussy’s youthful Printemps begins with a lilting melody that is vintage Debussy, as are the permutations to which he subjects it, only to end with a tune of frankly popular cut, as if to give false hope to those who cautioned against his treading an impressionistic path. Apart from the Debussy, this was Finnish music performed by Finnish principals. Sibelius’s sprawling “Four Legends” from the Kalevala, op 22, had been performed in its entirely only once before by the BSO. Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s clean-cut, propulsive reading made an excellent case for it, the exuberance of the final “Homeward Journey” supplying a welcome antidote to the sobriety of “The Swan of Tuonela”, which used to be heard on its own.
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