Kaija Saariaho’s Trans for harp and orchestra is a co-commission between the Suntory Foundation for Arts, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Tonhalle Orchester Zürich, Radio France and Hessischer Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester.
Planning a concerto for harp is another challenge; some of the more delicate textures are so easily covered by the orchestra.
Even if aware of this, I wanted to keep all instrumental colors of the orchestra available for this piece, but find musical situations to allow the harp to have its soloist space. So passages with full orchestra playing are rare, and the music is concentrated rather in different kinds of dialogues between the solo instrument and the various instrumental groups.
What I love in harp are the many possibilities of glissandi, but also simply hearing so clearly the fingers plucking the strings, as well as the generous resonance and large register of the instrument. Detailed varying of these characteristics have inspired me especially when creating the music for the cadenzas - there is one for each movement - played by the solo harp, sometimes sparsely accompanied by other instruments.
Fugitif, the first movement, introduces the contrasting musical characters and textures of the solo instrument and its dialogues with the different orchestral groups. For example the opening harp gesture of the piece is a recognizable seed for the cadenzas.
The title of the second movement, Vanité, points to a particular type of still life evoking both human life and its ephemeral nature. The objects represented in these paintings symbolize human activities, study, money, pleasure, wealth, power, shown against elements evoking the time that passes, fragility and destruction. I came to think about this title because the music of this movement is like a still life; it is based on different interpretations of symmetry, and the musical elements, some dark, others fragile, are treated as objects observed in different lights.
Messager, the last movement is quick and energetic. The harp and the orchestral instruments carry the musical message in turns, and the material gets transformed back and forth on the way.