Susanna Malkki, Saariaho’s finest interpreter, conducted all of these.

New York Times

Joshua Barone

The Composer of the Year

“It always feels frivolous to speak in superlatives, but this year it’s fitting — necessary, even — to name a best composer.

Kaija Saariaho, who has long conjured otherworldly sounds with the spirit of an explorer returning to share her discoveries, reached new heights of mastery with two of 2021’s most memorable premieres: the opera “Innocence” and the symphonic “Vista.”

In both, there was a disconnect between first impressions of sight and sound. At the Grand Théâtre de Provence in France, where “Innocence” premiered at the Aix Festival in July, the London Symphony Orchestra filled the pit with enough players to carry a Wagner opera. “Vista,” which I watched on livestreams from Berlin and Helsinki before hearing it in person with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in October, similarly called for an ensemble of about 80. (Susanna Malkki, Saariaho’s finest interpreter, conducted all of these.)

Rarely, though, did either piece deploy the full forces of the orchestra. “Vista” opens with an interplay of oboes; “Innocence,” with just a handful of low instruments before the entrance of a wailing bassoon. No note is extraneous, in part because there aren’t that many to begin with. Like Flaubert’s sentences, Saariaho’s writing here is crafted with the economy of an essentialist. Only the mot juste remains.

But to maximal effect. And in that lies the wisdom of Saariaho’s most recent music, which feels like the culmination of a master’s practice. For decades, she has interrogated the possibilities of acoustic and electronic sounds: how they’re produced and transformed, how they can trick the mind and tingle the senses. She has also, as she told the pianist Kirill Gerstein in a recent online conversation, spent those years honing her own kind of harmony, free from the restrictions of her serialism-era education.

“Vista” does have explosively grand moments, yet doesn’t rely on them for its power. Instead its allure and tension accumulate from textures that shift slowly, like a driver’s view of an open landscape. “Innocence” is by its nature more dramatic but achieves its heightened emotions through absence as much as exclamation.

A propulsive collective memory play — about a shooting at an international school and its long tail of trauma — “Innocence” is a ripped-from-the-headlines opera for our time. But it also has the makings of a classic, drawing the universal from the personal in its treatment of grief and forgiveness; it fits neatly on the shelf alongside “Jenufa” and “Wozzeck.”

Sofi Oksanen’s libretto reveals its mysteries gradually, as it moves fluidly among years, languages and relationships — with a cast of 13 singers and actors, each identifiable by a unique musical palette. That seems like a lot, especially with a large orchestra and chorus, but “Innocence” is a triumph of restraint and legibility. Magisterial in her command of such forces, Saariaho writes unwaveringly in service of the drama. And the scale follows.

“Innocence” is bound for major houses in Europe and the United States, including the Metropolitan Opera. “Vista,” too, is still traveling. So Saariaho should continue to be a highlight of the classical music year, for years to come.”