“Siri Brander's Elegie for string orchestra was newsworthy and – it has to be said at once – good news indeed.” The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra’s popular concert in April 1894 featured a set of symphonic masterpieces, yet the newspaper Uusi Suometar highlighted the opening number of the concert by a 28-year-old local composer and animal welfare activist whose sad melodies enchanted the audience.
Claire Chase, “the most important flutist of our time” (The New York Times) and “the young star of the modern flute” (The New Yorker), has performed hundreds of premieres on six continents in the last ten years. For Kaija Saariaho, the flute is an instrument that is close to her heart for the way in which a breath can always be heard in its voice. In Aile du Songe, the flute is a bird whose flight is a symbol of the mysteries of life.
Siri Brander: Elegie
Only by chance was a piece called Elegie recently discovered deep in the HPO archives. It appeared to have been composed some 130 years ago by a certain Siri Brander, but who on earth was she? The few crumbs of information available revealed that she was actually a big name in animal welfare circles rather than as a composer. Originally for piano, the piece was later arranged for string orchestra. Lasting only a few minutes even with repeats, it was performed in 1894 in the company of Brahms, Mendelssohn, Massenet and Bruch. Though Brander’s was one of the first works by a female composer to be played by the HPO, the contemporary critic R.S. preferred to focus on the piece itself rather than the gender of the composer:
“The ‘Eligie’ for string orchestra composed by Siri Brander was, however, news and – let it be said at once – agreeable news. This little piece is, with its beautiful melody and its careful, elegant instrumental arrangement, exceedingly successful and did indeed receive the attention it merited from the audience.”
Felipe Lara: Meditation and Calligraphy
Born in Brazil in 1979, Felipe Lara has studied and worked in the USA since 1999. He wrote Medication and Calligraphy (2014) for solo amplified bass flute during a residency at a 15th-century castle in Italy. “One former fellow, G. Mend-Ooyo, a Mongolian poet and calligrapher particularly called my attention,” he says. “He was born and raised by a nomadic herding family, in the Mongolian steppe. I asked him: ‘How do you create such incredible calligraphies?’ He replied, ‘Meditation, meditation, meditation for a very long time…then calligraphy with one quick gesture’.”
Lara decided he would “meditate” a solo bass flute work for an entire evening, then wake up and write it in under 30 minutes. It uses the letters of Mend-Ooyo’s name – G, E-flat (mi), D and C (do) – as a starting point for the pitch material. The vowel sounds from the name are also used to modulate the flute when singing and playing simultaneously is required.
Kaija Saariaho: Aile du Songe
The concerto Aile du Songe (Wing of Dream, 2001) for flute and orchestra combines many of the recurrent elements in the music of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952): celestial bodies, birds, poetry, and the solo flute. The title and general mood of the concerto derive from the collection Oiseaux by French Nobel-winning poet Saint-John Perse describing the flight of birds rather than their singing.
The titles of the two main parts are also borrowed from the poems: Aérienne and Terrestre. The opening prelude that sets the scene is followed by Jardin des oiseaux, a garden of birds in which the flute converses with the orchestra, and D’autres rives likening the flute to a lone bird whose shadow forms different images played by the strings over the unchanged landscape of a harp, celesta and percussion.
Terrestre begins with Oiseau dansant referring to an Aboriginal tale in which a bird teaches a whole village to dance. The piece ends with a musical invocation of a bird orbiting the Earth like a tiny satellite.
Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 92 in G Major “Oxford”
Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) was, in his day, the most famous composer in Europe. The year 1789 found him working on two big commissions: three symphonies for both Paris and Bavaria. To ease the stress, he decided to cut a few corners, write only three and present them to each of his patrons as unique. One was No. 92 in G major. But why is it called ‘The Oxford’?
Haydn’s employer Prince Nikolaus was a great patron of the arts at his vast Esterházy estate, but when he died in 1790, his son was forced to economise. He disbanded the court orchestra and pensioned Haydn off after decades in its service. Haydn had, however, been busy networking and was soon invited to England. With him he took his fairly new Symphony No. 92. His hosts were so taken with it that they put him up for an honorary doctorate at the University of Oxford. Protocol dictated that he had to present proof of his competence. Pressed for time, he therefore fell back on No. 92, already a hit, and ever since then it has been known as ‘The Oxford’. The symphony is in the classical four movements: a first one in sonata form followed by a slow movement, a Minuet and a lively finale.