The audience knows from the start that it is in for something unusual when Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's clarinet concerto D'om le vrai sens begins and the soloist is nowhere in sight. Only after about 40 seconds of gentle, undulating playing by the strings and low-key percussion does the clarinet announce its presence with a plaintive cry from the back of the hall, where the soloist is hidden.

Kari Kriikku © Marco Borggreve
Kari Kriikku
© Marco Borggreve

Thus begins Saariaho's half-hour-long 2010 tour de force which is almost as much a work of theatre as it is a concerto. It was given its Irish premiere by its dedicatee, Finnish clarinetist Kari Kriikku, with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Ilan Volkov.

Volkov also led the RTÉ NSO in a performance of Mahler's Symphony no. 7 which, despite being one of the composer's most difficult works, proved that the RTÉ NSO had everyone working at the top of their game.

Saariaho says her concerto was inspired by the famous 16th-century “The Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries in the Musee National du Moyen Age in Paris, which portray a lady attended on either side by a lion and a unicorn. Five of the six panels depict the five senses – sound, sight, smell, touch and taste – while the sixth carries the enigmatic dedication “A mon seul desir” (to my only love) – with no further clarification.

The composer's keen sense of theatre very much infuses the piece. Not only is the opening one of the most dramatic passages for a clarinet since the first bars of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, but the soloist is peripatetic throughout. Saariaho casts the clarinet as the unicorn and Kriikku enhanced the effect by wearing a shiny, multi-coloured, patterned shirt that made him, with the clarinet projecting from his face, look something like a latter-day mythical beast and a tapestry rolled into one.

Stage directions in the score direct the soloist to walk slowly into the concert hall, to play for a time at the back of the stage, to move through the different sections of the orchestra and only for one movement to sit in the spot reserved for the soloist. About midway through, Kriikku started dancing onstage, almost daring the other players to join him. At the end, it became contagious and most of the violin section followed him offstage.

Playing the piece from memory is de rigueur, but Saariaho ups the ante by including passages that are multiphonic. It is not easy for a clarinet to produce two notes at once, but Kriikku managed it, repeatedly, in some breathtaking passages of virtuosic derring-do.

Overall, the concerto is in the late-period Saariaho soundscape and indeed she says it grew out of her work for her opera about courtly love, L'amour de loin. It is never raucously loud, except for the occasional outburst by the clarinet-unicorn, but there is fascinating interplay of sounds and rhythms throughout, with a wonderful, glassy sheen cast over it by the celesta, the chimes and other percussion. Plus that fantastic clarinet sound – from one extreme of the instrument's range to the other.

Saariaho's music is not often on the menu at concerts in Ireland, so perhaps it had to happen that when the floodgates were opened, the dam burst. On March 1, audiences for the New Music Dublin weekend-long festival were treated to Korean-born violinist Hae-Sun Kang playing the Irish premiere of Saariaho's Graal theatre and the composers' works featured in several other concerts over the weekend.

Let's hope more Saariaho is on its way – and Volkov, too. His conducting of the concerto was masterful, ceding the spotlight (and there was an actual spotlight, trained on Kriikku) to the soloist at all times. Plus he made the RTÉ NSO sound like it had Mahler in its soul. More, please.

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