At one point during the fifth movement, "Touch", of Kaija Saariaho's 2010 clarinet concerto D'om le vrai sens, clarinetist Kari Kriikku sauntered through the aisles of both the orchestra and audience, spinning around in two complete 360s and surely dousing the flabbergasted listeners in the floor seating with saliva. The six-movement concerto, which was written for Mr Kriikku, was inspired by a series of six medieval tapestries which Ms Saariaho had observed in the Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris. This riveting performance of the New York première was here interpreted by Mr Kriikku and another frequent Saariaho collaborator and fellow Finn, the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, directing the New York Philharmonic. The Philharmonic sounded fantastic – electric, taut, precise – at the Park Avenue Armory, which boasts much more favorable acoustics than their usual venue at David Geffen Hall. The echoey armory was the perfect host for a full program of works by Ms Saariaho, a pioneer of spectralism whose music sparkles with a rich, often overwhelming array of timbres and colors.

Kari Kriikku © Marco Borggreve
Kari Kriikku
© Marco Borggreve
The piece had yawned into being directly following the Philharmonic's performance of Lumière et pesanteur of 2009, an arrangement based on Ms Saariaho's oratorio La Passion de Simone and described as a "gift" for Mr Salonen, which had shimmered across our consciousness like a sigh. Although the visuals shifted from Jennifer Tipton's soft, cool-colored lighting and video projections towards more concrete imagery, the sonic atmosphere remained dense yet quiet. Jean-Baptiste Barrière's projections depicted frozen snapshots of tapestries as well as cursive script ("l'ouïe", "l'odorat") describing the sense each movement was meant to embody. The shivering strings and pinging vibraphones, not to mention the clarinet multiphonics and other extended techniques, intertwined into resonances that were colorful and sensuous, especially when accented with the subtle yet effective visuals. The concerto was surprisingly kinesthetic, from the moment Mr Kriikku neighed out his first note from the back of the theater and audience members craned their necks toward the sound unseen. He proceeded to prowl around, from one end of the theater to the other, facing off with violins and joined by the other clarinets who hopped up for a brief trio. During the sixth and final movement, many of the musicians stood up and wound their way in between audience members and each other, adding a further spatial dimension to the spectral sound world.

D'om le vrai sens was the stand-out in a performance that was impressive from start to end, and which bled together like watercolors on tissue paper. (Mr Salonen gently shushed those who tried to clap at the conclusion of D'om le vrai sens.) Immediately following the enigmatic sixth movement of the clarinet concerto was a stunning rendition of Lonh, the only piece that was not a New York première, the prologue for Ms Saariaho's first opera L'Amour de loin, written for Dawn Upshaw. It was performed at the Armory by Jennifer Zetlan, a newbie to the Saariaho team who was slightly less self-assured than Mr Kriikku had been. Despite looking slightly self-conscious as she paced wide circles around the space, her voice was radiant as she whispered and warbled the words of the text, a troubadour's poem about love from afar. In the same way that Ms Zetlan's vocals were superimposed with the concrete sounds (rustling wind, dripping rain) of an electronic score, her image was superimposed onto the more abstract images of the video projections. The result was a fascinating multimedia meditation on distance and presence.

The final work was a stunning rendition of Circle Map, a 2012 composition for orchestra and electronics inspired by a six-quatrain poem by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi. Projections of calligraphic script allowed for the conflation of the written world of the poem with Ms Saariaho's ephemeral wordless retelling. The result was a disjointed, nonlinear narrative in which hissing sounds predominated, pitched percussion instruments added levity, and electronic recordings (as with Lonh, a collaboration between Ms Saariaho and Mr Barrière) were disseminated throughout the space on six loudspeakers surrounding the audience and orchestra. The highlight was the beautiful fourth stanza, which reads "Days are sieves to filter spirit, / reveal impurities, and too, / show the light of some who throw / their own shining into the universe", and which was suitably paired with Ms Saariaho's sonic glints and sparkles.

****1