Aho: Minea - Concertante Music for Orchestra

Minea - Concertant Music for Orchestra

Kalevi Aho was born March 9, 1949, in Forssa, Finland, and currently lives in Helsinki. He composed Minea in 2008 on commission from the Minnesota Orchestra. Osmo Vänskä led that ensemble in the work’s premiere on November 5, 2009. These are the San Francisco Symphony’s first performances of Minea. The score calls for three flutes and piccolo, three oboes and English horn, three clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, two suspended cymbals, vibraphone, glockenspiel, tam-tam, bass drum, chimes, chains, four tom-toms, two congas, two bongos, darabucka (a one-headed, hourglass-shaped drum, often called darbuka or doumbek), military drum, harp, piano, and strings. Duration: about eighteen minutes.

Finland has provided the international contemporary-music scene with a greater abundance of talented composers, conductors, and soloists than one might expect from a nation just eighty percent as large as California in area and only fifteen percent as numerous in population. This phenomenon derives from the confluence of a number of important circumstances, including an enlightened national approach to music education.

Kalevi Aho received his advanced musical training at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, where he studied with the eminent Einojuhani Rautavaara. Following his graduation in 1971, he pursued further work with Boris Blacher at Berlin’s Conservatory for Music and Theatrical Art. He taught music theory at Helsinki University from 1974 to 1988, and from 1988 to 1993 he was on the composition faculty at the Sibelius Academy. Since that time he has supported himself as a composer, a situation made possible by Finland’s state support for the arts. In return, Aho has given back to his nation’s arts infrastructure, serving on the boards of the Society of Finnish Composers and Finnish Cultural Foundation, on the program committees of the Helsinki Philharmonic and Helsinki Festival, and on the State Music Committee. In 1975 he co-founded the Society for the Publication of Finnish Music, and since 1992 he has served as composer-in-residence at the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

Aho has gained particular notice for his orchestral works, including thirteen concertos, many of them for instruments less generously served in that genre, such as tuba, contrabassoon, bass, saxophone quartet, trombone, percussion, trumpet, and horn. He has completed fifteen symphonies. Some commentators viewed his early symphonies as displaying allegiance to the symphonic tradition of Mahler, Shostakovich, Joonas Kokkonen, and Aulis Sallinen; the names of Ligeti and Schnittke surface as often when his later works are under consideration. In addition to his own composition, Aho’s service to Finnish music runs deep. He completed numerous works that were left unfinished by their composers or that required help in being restored to a performable state (among them Sibelius’s Karelia). He has also written on the history of Finnish music. His collection of essays on politics and aesthetics is titled The Tasks of an Artist in a Post-Modern Society: Art and Reality.

“Even as a child,” he has written, “I found life very complex and uncontrollable. My entire output has really been an attempt to understand, to understand and analyze why we are as we are, why the world is as it is; could people be different, could we change the world, how should we live and relate to the difficult fundamental issues in life? Many of my works are like abstract life-stories or tragedies; they are musical attempts to explore the human mind, abstract statements; they are attempts to create or intensify dramatic situations, and now and then expeditions into the unknown.”

The single-movement Minea treads more lightly and comes across as a generally straightforward romp, in which principal players from throughout the large orchestra are tapped to play spotlighted roles. The work’s subtitle, “Concertante Music for Orchestra,” suggests as much.

The title Minea is a truncated allusion to the city of Minneapolis and, by extension, to the orchestra for which the piece was written. The forces are large, including quadruple winds and a percussion section that is colorful and active. An arresting sonic effect launches the piece. Against a tone sustained by clarinets, trumpets, vibraphone, glockenspiel, harp, and piano, the horns, trombones, and tuba blow into their instruments to create pitchless sounds, evoking wind or waves. High woodwinds enter playing ethereal sounds, and then they begin tracing the fluttering contours of rapid scales, the intervals of which suggest exotic or folkloric origins. Solo high woodwinds break away from the section’s scales to engage in more individual banter among themselves; and not long after, their deep-voiced brethren—bass clarinet, bassoon, and contrabassoon—similarly engage in “concertante conversation” at the lowest depths of the pitch spectrum.

The percussion section gradually emerges as an engine of this composition, particularly at the point where the preludial episode (tranquillo) cedes to a hopping allegro, marked at its outset by the spirited rhythmic counterpoint of timpani, tom-toms, congas, and bongos, playing piano and misterioso. This marks the principal portion of the piece, which from here forward will unroll as an extended crescendo. The texture begins from a slender, low-pitched point, with a single bassoon enunciating the sinuous melody. Other low-pitched instruments gradually join in the activity, and then instruments from elsewhere in the orchestra’s forces offer their voices, yielding what is ultimately an example of additive instrumentation against the moto perpetuum of the percussion section. Low brasses intone powerful chords with a massiveness we recognize from Bruckner and Sibelius. Incantatory intensity builds through harmonic repetition and rhythmic momentum. Constantly shifting meter adds to the excitement.

The music peaks in fortississimo and suddenly recedes to piano for the final episode, marked presto, introduced by nervous, skittering strings. Now the percussion section seems unstoppable, leading the charge through the counterpoint of swirling scales, massive chords, and stentorian chanting from the brasses. Bright, blazing colors carry through to the final page, where the entire orchestra has reached fortississimo and, in the very last measure, thrusts a further blast through a concluding crescendo.

—James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: Minea has not yet been released in a commercial recording, although one hears suggestions of an upcoming recording by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. The work can be heard on a podcast in which Osmo Vänskä conducts the Minnesota Orchestra: symphonycast.publicradio.org/programs/2009/12/07/ |  Many of Aho’s compositions are available on CD, on the BIS label.

Reading: Historical Dictionary of the Music and Musicians of Finland, by Ruth-Esther Hillila and Barbara Blanchard Hong (Greenwood Press)  |  Three publications by Kimmo Korhonen:  Finnish Orchestral Music 2Finnish Composers Since the 1960s, and Finnish Concertos (all published by the Finnish Music Information Centre)