Kaija Saariaho & Vasco MendonçaA harmony of musical souls

Published in November 2015icon-clockTime to read: 4m40s
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In encounters in cities from Los Angeles to Helsinki, the mentorship of Finland’s Kaija Saariaho and Portugal’s Vasco Mendonça unfolded smoothly, establishing a joyful professional friendship that was both dynamic and highly productive. Mendonça attended performances of Saariaho’s music around the world – and twice his music was played at the same event as hers. They were able to engage in stimulating intellectual discussions about their work and other artistic matters. Mendonça found the experience of having a “second pair of eyes” on his work invaluable.

by Sarah Crompton November 2015
  • Kaija Saariaho
    The Mentor
  • Vasco Mendonça
    The Protégé

For young Portuguese composer Vasco Mendonça, the solitary act of composing classical music becomes a rich, fulfilling journey in the company of celebrated Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, who has opened doors and her life to her protégé.

On a bone-chilling night in February, snow covers the ground of the Finnish capital - but that doesn't stop the music-lovers heading in their droves to the subterranean Music Centre, heart of Helsinki's rich musical life. Somehow the concert-goers fail to spot the celebrity in their midst: the classical composer Kaija Saariaho sits in the main café, anonymous and very quiet.

The elegant 63-year-old is on home turf. She was born in this city and still has a flat here, though she is mainly based in Paris. This was where she began a career as a composer that has made her celebrated around the world. “To journey into Saariaho's music is to be confronted with the darkest and most dazzling dimensions of your subconscious, and glimpses of the existential journeys she has made to find those pieces,“ says British music writer Tom Service in The Guardian. She is a composer like no other, a conjurer of powerful, dreamlike images.

But today she fades into the background, sitting nursing a black coffee and a bout of flu, waiting for a friend and colleague.

He arrives, fresh off the plane from his home in Lisbon. Vasco Mendonça, 38, already an established composer in his own right, is her Rolex protégé, and this meeting, halfway through the year of mentoring, will be as joyful as the rest of their encounters.

Rich cultural knowledge

Saariaho felt an empathy with her protégé from the first, when she chose him from a shortlist of three finalists in Lyon. “His music is intelligent, well organized and breathes rich cultural knowledge,“ she says. “It has intensity and intention, but isn't directly emotional. It's going to be fascinating to see how far it will continue to develop.”

Initially they didn't even talk about music. “We talked about our lives and how they influence what we do,“ remembers Mendonça. “I had a very young child and a second one on the way, and so we started talking about that and how vulnerable it makes you feel and the sense of fear that comes with having children. We immediately connected on that aspect because Kaija is clearly someone who is utterly dedicated to her family.”

Introducing Mendonça to her world was how Saariaho decided to tackle her mentorship. “For a composer, mentorship is different from what I imagine it might be with artists of other disciplines,“ she explains. “You can watch someone paint or sculpt or dance or conduct, but composing is a solitary profession. There's nothing Vasco could gain by sitting and watching me compose,“ she says. “So, instead, I have been looking at and hearing his music, conversing with him about music and life, and bringing him to assist at rehearsals and performances of my music so that he can also get to know my colleagues.”

Competitive profession

One of them, the cellist Anssi Karttunen, now artistic director of Helsinki's Musica Nova festival, suggested Mendonça should write a piece to accompany a dance work at the biennial event. “Kaija has been very generous and very active in introducing me to people and facilitating ways for my work to be shown,“ says Mendonça. “I think that is one of the most important aspects of this programme. There are so many good composers nowadays, but to get to the level of achievement and recognition Kaija has, is something quite unique. And, of course, to be recommended to someone by her can be extremely helpful in such a competitive profession.”

But Saariaho's collegiality, not her networking, was key to their rapport. “From the first she was clear that this was not a teacher-student relationship. I have been composing professionally for some time now and I have been doing well in my career. So all the time our discussions have been between a more experienced artist and a younger artist... It has been a wonderful exchange between two composers.”

Saariaho, too, feels that the relationship has been one of mutual support. “It's given me a chance to have several interesting discussions with a talented younger colleague - and to get to know his music and ideas better. I really am learning from Vasco when I see music and life and problems through his eyes.”

Mexico City

The most memorable conversations of the year were in Mexico where both composers had pieces played at the Festival Internacional de Musica de Morelia. The International Contemporary Ensemble's performance of Mendonça's 15 year-old piano trio had thrilled him. He also found the gracious, 16th-century city of Morelia, with its beautifully preserved curving streets and its frescoed governor's palace enchanting. Then came the excitement of the tumult in Mexico City. “On a crazy drive back from Morelia to Mexico City with a driver who was dodging the traffic”, the two had an enlightening discussion about the commission for Musica Nova Helsinki. Mendonça was torn between a number of texts and Saariaho advised him to follow his instinct and compose the poem he was most attracted to, rather than to squeeze two texts into one work. The result was Adultery, based on a poem by the British Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.

Saariaho hopes her feedback has given Mendonça new ways to estimate his work when composing. “It is so important to be able to step back occasionally and see one's own work as an entity, because when composing we have so many details to deal with, it isn't always easy to see the totality. I have encouraged him to express himself more directly and to trust his intuition when it comes to some compositional decisions.”

Values in life

Their compositions and sound worlds are quite different. Saariaho is renowned for combining electronic and live music in lush and elaborate compositions, while Mendonça has often worked in chamber forms and has experimented with sounds as basic as rock pounding on rock. His soundscape is austere, sparse.

Saariaho was drawn to Mendonça partly because of his interest in opera and music theatre — the form that has become increasingly important in her own career since L'Amour de Loin premiered at Salzburg in 2000. Mendonça's dark and intriguing opera, The House Taken Over, had just been premiered at the Aix-en-Provence festival when they met. “The human voice is my instrument of choice,” he explains. “There's something overwhelming and vulnerable about it. Music is such an abstract art, self-referential, very much outside the world. And the theatre brings it back to earth and anchors it.”

This mutual interest — “I related very much to the care and attention Kaija has in her vocal music,” Mendonça says — gave them rich common ground for conversation and discovery. An early talk, in Paris, where a new production of her oratorio La Passion de Simone was being staged, concerned a libretto about the seven deadly sins. Mendonça had been commissioned to write an opera on the subject for next year's commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the death of the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. He took the first draft of the libretto with him — as he took a new composition to each of their meetings — and they mulled over difficulties of pacing and the balance between dialogue and exposition.

He has also valued her advice on the very practical issues that face aspiring composers such as publishing and fees. “Oddly enough, in managing your career, you just have to figure these things out as you go along. In that sense, it was very helpful to be able to ask someone about it.”

Invitation to Lisbon

In April, Mendonça invited Saariaho to Lisbon, to meet his family - and to see the place where he works. He moved to the Portuguese capital from his birthplace in Porto when he was four, and it was here that he learned guitar, and then piano, taking the first steps towards life as a classical composer. After he began to play jazz, he also discovered he liked composing more than performing and his course was set. “Music has always been my privileged form of communication: composing is a way to express myself, but also an act of sharing with others something that matters for me. More and more I see art as a way to connect,” he explains.

In bringing Saariaho to his home, he wanted her to understand his culture and background, to show her the places “where no tourists go”, like the little café near his office where he eats lunch every day. It reinforced a relationship forged in nine cities and nine encounters during the year that is likely to continue long after this formal mentorship has ended. “We've established a connection and a personal relationship, and I don't see why it won't continue,“ says Mendonça.

It also underlined once more the empathy that had brought them together in the first place — the importance of family, of a perspective on the world that extends so much beyond music, yet underpins everything they both do. Saariaho sums it up. “Having a family helps you to keep a healthy relationship with one's work. It makes professional problems and successes relative. It reminds us about the most important values in life, about generosity, equality and independent thinking. And then, of course, being a parent teaches us much about love. Like everything in life, that goes into the music — and brings it richness.”

Sarah Crompton is a writer and broadcaster on all things cultural. She writes for The Guardian and Intelligent Life, among other publications. Additional research was provided by music writer and dramaturge Cori Ellison.

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