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Surely among the most prolific composers of large-scale works today, Kalevi Aho’s music is impossible to categorise. His musical language borrows freely from modernism, world music, and neo-romantic symphonic writing, always with a keen sense of colour and slightly mischievous ear for unusual instruments and pairings. Also present in compositions but also in interviews and writings, is a consideration of the role of the artist in today’s world and the fragility of expression.
Aho was born in Forssa, Finland. He was interested in music from a young age, beginning with violin and composition at the age of 10. He continued his professional studies in composition with Einojuhani Rautavaara at the Sibelius Academy, and later for one year in Berlin with Boris Blacher. Aho’s earliest major work, completed while he was still a student in Helsinki, was hisSymphony No.1 (1969). Beginning with a fugue in the strings, reminiscent of Shostakovich <>, the work quickly becomes more darkly cinematic. It is an intellectually demanding, contrapuntal work, but with a very dramatic sensibility, concluding with a powerful choral in the brass instruments, shrill minor seconds in the winds, and ominous strokes in the percussion.
Just six years later, in 1976, Aho completed his Symphony No.5. The most structurally complex and immediately modern of his symphonic works up to that point, the composition is also very personal and emotional; “In my Fifth Symphony, there is a passage into which I have written all the people close to me who had died by the time I wrote that music. But there is no way for the listener to realize that this is what is going on.” The work superimposes different characters which push and pull against the others, sometimes chaotically and sometimes indifferently, while occasionally crystallizing into more unified passages, or dropping out completely for eerily lonely haunting solo passages. The work is alternately cacophonous and delicate, emotional and impersonal.
Aho was appointed composer in residence with Finland’s Lahti Symphony Orchestra in 1992, under the direction of conductor Osmo Vänskä. Aho’s appointment with the orchestra led to further symphonies and, beginning in 2000, a series of concerti mostly dedicated to various principle players, with the intention of writing a concerto for every instrument in the modern orchestra. The first of the series, completed in 2001, is theTuba Concerto. Written for Norwegian soloist Øystein Baadsvik, the lyrical work is one of the major additions to the tuba repertoire in the 20th century. The thirty-minute work is an expressive and technically demanding showcase for the tuba, which is framed by lyrical melodies in the orchestra.
Aho has said that he feels a particular affinity for the sound of double reed instruments, and, over decades of his career, has set out to write a work in every genre for the instruments. The first was theBassoon Quintet (1977), which he describes as “…one of the most important chamber music pieces I have written.” The project has stretched forward through the trio of concertos for Bassoon (2004), Contrabassoon (2005), and most recently, Oboe (2007). The Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra was written for Belgian oboist Piet Van Bockstal. The work also has an important social idea in it: “I used a darabuka drum and Arabic rhythms. It is a subversive device for introducing other cultural spheres to the genre, even though it makes no pretense at being Arabic music as such. The objective is more to dissolve prejudices by marrying different musical traditions.” The composition is eclectic and virtuosic, with references to both Germanic and Aho’s own Nordic traditions, with the vein of driving Arabic percussion instruments and twisting scales underlying the work.
In 1978, Aho completed his first opera, Avain (The Key), based on a monologue of the same name by Finnish writer Juha Mannerkorpi. From his very first production, Aho uses the opera genre as a vehicle to explore the condition of humanity and society in a very universal but modern way. “Opera is an art form where you can say exactly what you think of the world. A contemporary composer could gain social importance, if he only dared to take up topical and burning issues.” His latest opera,Frida y Diego (2013) follows in this direction. It was inspired by the playDreams of a Sunday Afternoon by Peruvian-born Finland resident Maritza Núñez, which Aho saw in its Finnish production, and which includes artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo amongst its fantastic characters. With dozens of opera librettos previously completed, Núñez had intended to adapt the play directly into the libretto, but ultimately ended rewriting much of it after further research and focus into specific characters. Núñez wrote of the libretto: “It’s possible to pick out many different emotions and levels simultaneously: love and politics, eroticism, sexuality, art. Ultimately,Frida y Diego is an opera about freedom.”
One of Aho’s most unusual compositions is, without a doubt, his Theramin Concerto from 2011. Written for Carolina Eyck, the work, over eight movements representing the seasons of Finland, takes full and expressive advantage of the electronic, contactless instrument. Its remarkable voice is showcased with soaring melodies, imitations of nature sounds, and paired with voice in polyphonic passages where the soloist is also asked to sing. The recording of the work, with the Eyck and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra directed by John Storgards, was awarded the German ECHO award in 2015.
Aho was a professor of music theory at the University of Helsinki from 1974-1988 and a professor of composition at the Sibelius Academy from 1988-1993. Many of his major works have been recorded on the BIS record label, most with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. He has also written a number of essays and books focusing on Finnish music and the duty of art and artist in society.
With an oeuvre currently consisting of sixteen symphonies, twenty-five concertos, five operas, and numerous solo, chamber, vocal, and orchestral works deemed something less than a symphony, Kalevi Aho has constructed a forceful body of work. There is a huge range of emotion and sound, with a degree of surprise in drama and instrumentation that is rarely matched. With these remarkable resources, utilised within his vision of an artist’s duty to society, his work will surely remain relevant and powerful for years to come.
Header image courtesy of Bach Cantatas Other images courtesy of hs.fi and public domain