Graal théâtre is a concerto for violin and orchestra, of which there are two versions. The BBC and a Dutch radio station co-commissioned the first version, and Saariaho wrote it for Guidon Kremer, who premiered it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen at the London Proms in August 1995. The second version (1997) is a reduction of the former for chamber orchestra with an identical solo violin part. The Finnish violinist John Storgårds premiered this version with the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu in Helsinki in September 1997.
“In my case, writing a concerto has always been triggered by a vivid interest not only in an instrument but also in a performer,” Saariaho wrote in an article entitled ‘A couple of thoughts on concertos’ (2005). To date, in addition to Graal théâtre, she has composed three concertos, two for cello and one for flute. Both cello concertos have been inspired by the musicianship of Anssi Karttunen, and the first one (Amers, 1992) is, the composer says, a kind of a portrait of this cellist with whom she has cooperated more closely than with any other instrumentalist, except perhaps the flutist Camilla Hoitenga, the dedicatee of her flute concerto (Aile du Songe, 2000–2001).
The cello and the flute adapt themselves particularly well to express the kind of musical ideas Saariaho is interested in. The violin offers more challenge. “My relation to the violin clearly is more complex, since it was at one time my main instrument. The violin is connected with a lot of frustrated illusions, longing, and love. On the other hand, many interesting things in music and musicianship culminate in the violin: utmost virtuosity, the importance of a personal sonority, instrumental fetishism. A really interesting violinist always seems to be not only a brilliant musician but an unusually enigmatic person at the same time!”
The first impulse behind Graal théâtre, Saariaho tells, was Guidon Kremer practising Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. “Because the genre is so traditional, I was much more aware of the generic tradition and its weight. It felt especially difficult to write a concerto for violin, because many violin concertos have been so dare to me. In this case, the person of the soloist was more distant, more abstract, and prompted me to study in a greater extent already existing concertos rather than to represent his personality. And even if I was writing the concerto for Guidon Kremer, John Storgårds was more concretely present when I was working on it, since scrutinized the score with him; and in his interpretation the concerto has deepened into that kind of journey I wanted to create.”
There was yet another impulse. Saariaho, in another context, says that she had just set about writing the concerto when Lutoslawski died, and in a couple of days she wrote a six-minute piece for solo violin, Nocturne, “In Memory of Witold Lutoslawski.” She sent it by fax to John Storgårds, who first performed it on February 16, 1994, in Helsinki. “And it was that material which then began to grow at the beginning of the concerto,” Saariaho mentions.
Saariaho did not call the work just a violin concerto. She was after something more telling, more poetic. ‘Graal théâtre’ refers to a series of texts by the French writers Florence Delay and Jacques Roubaud, in which the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and that of Grail are combined. The first two volumes of this substantial collection of medieval poetry, rewritten for our time using a variety of sources in seven different languages, were published in 1977 and 1981, respectively. The whole cycle of ten novels (or plays) was completed in 2005. The cycle begins with the foundation of two chivalries, one celestial by Joseph of Arimathea, the otherworldly by the enchanter Merlin. This dichotomy is reflected in the title of the concerto, where Graal stands for the holy and spiritual and théâtre for the profane and physical, and it also is reflected in opposition between its two movements, Delicato and Impetuoso.
Published in LAPHIL PRESENTS, October 2007, p. 35.