The Cleveland Orchestra’s program Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall was a mix of conservative and bold choices, as evidenced by a stodgy Brahms classic on the first half juxtaposed with Shostakovich’s most enigmatic symphonic statement and the New York premiere of a brilliant work by the Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho.
Saariaho has received a lot of exposure this season, thanks to her position as Carnegie Hall’s latest Composer-in-Residence. Given her twilit homeland, her music is exotic and dark—fusing aggressive orchestral passages, exotic percussion, and sensuous strings. Laterna magica, a 2008 work that takes its name from an Ingmar Bergman biography and the first machine to create a moving image, was expansive and rich in color.
Although her music can tend to skew on the cerebral side, there was a clear-cut form to this work, which used extensive percussion—comprising vibraphone, tubular bells, pitched gongs, and sawed cymbal throughout. The effect was devastatingly beautiful and atmospheric, with large cosmic swells emanating from the string body. A master of texture, there were many moments of woodwind flourishes supported by plucked strings against a tapestry of keyed percussion and harp. Adding to the piece’s shadowy demeanor were several passages of whispers spoken into woodwind instruments at different pitch levels, including repetitions of “light” (“licht”), sounding like a distant plea to the darkness at hand.