Violin concerto by Kaija Saariaho
performed by Peter Herresthal
Premiere on June 2nd, 2017 at the Bergen International Festival (Norway)
with the London Sinfonietta conducted by Pierre-André Valade
with Peter Herresthal, solo violin
Stage direction and video Aleksi Barrière
Lighting design Étienne Exbrayat
Invited by soloist Peter Herresthal, La Chambre aux échos develops with him as a work-in-progress a new stage form meant to widen the instrumental theatre that is inherent to the concerto as a genre, through the means of video, lighting and staging of musicians. The adventure of the violinist challenged by the orchestra then opens up, as a musical quest that is constantly played over again, in all its free associations and offers a new listening experience.
Graal Théâtre: A Musical Quest
The Grail adventures, the so-called ‘Matter of Britain’, is really as much a testimony on the phantasmatic history of Medieval England as the first truly European literary narrative: early on, it spread its branches throughout Norway and Iceland and down to the Iberian Peninsula and the Mediterranean, and connected what didn’t yet perceive itself as a continent to the Middle-East and beyond. In many ways, including their most secret mystical and alchemical levels, these are stories larger than anything we can grasp as individuals. But the very simple ‘story’ that we are set out to tell with this piece is only the shadow of that myth and mystery, or its distant glimmer, a short concert form inspired by some of the outlines of the traditional tales of the Grail rewritten by Jacques Roubaud and Florence Delay in their poetic play cycle Graal Théâtre, that inspired Kaija Saariaho for her violin concerto.
It is told that only three knights of Arthur’s Round Table were allowed to see the Grail in the Castle of the Fisher King, and the two first heroes were not even able to finish the Quest and apprehend or even comprehend the sacred objet they encountered. First Percival, who was innocent and devoid of knowledge, and who didn’t have the wisdom to ask who or what was being served with this dish that is the Grail. Then came Gawain, who although he had achieved far greater ripeness as a knight, was too attached to earthly pleasures and the needs of the body to understand the holy mystery he was facing, much like Lancelot who, because of his attachment to his adulterous love to Guinevere, King Arthur’s queen, wasn’t even granted an appearance of the Grail during his visit to the Castle. But finally Lancelot’s son Galahad, the purest of all, unified the heavenly and earthly kingdoms.
Kaija Saariaho’s music doesn’t aim at telling this story in all its details, let alone offer an interpretation of its esoteric meanings, and it shall not be our purpose either. But we can, like the music, play with its most concrete connotation, and let it disclose the story of a quest, exemplified by the violin, this ‘chosen instrument’ that was chosen by Kaija Saariaho as the hero of her first concerto. In three consecutive attempts, it will have to deal with its soloistic mission, that ‘Siege Perilous’ of the classical concert, with the temptation of virtuosity, with the complexity of leading a dialogue with the orchestra, and face the challenge of creating a piece of music not against it, but together. This is no adventure fit for an action movie, but it is a universal one.
As a work one could say that the concerto borrows from the series of plays (which it draws upon as freely as the series itself upon the original scriptures) mostly a very large arch, bent towards an immense and invisible goal, that is dissimulated behind a forest of events and episodes. Theatre, in its spectacular showmanship, can be what camouflages the goal that the reckless player (and listener) tends to forget in the process. It should also be, though, the means to bring this quest into the realm of the visible and the palpable, and this is our aim in the project of staging the concerto.
The mystery of making music is a formidable one, akin to that of life itself: everything was there from the beginning and yet suddenly something new and overwhelmingly beautiful is there too, born ‘out of thin air’ in the most literal sense. By telling a musical story of the Grail and the theatre we may touch upon that very mystery, revealing that, like in the Sufi fable The Conference of the Birds, written in Persia while the epics of the Arthurian legends were being formulated in the West, what we had set up on a long journey to find was really always in ourselves.