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Kaija Saariaho: Feted Finnish composer dies at 70

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, considered to be an innovator in classical music, has died aged 70.

Her family said she had been diagnosed in 2021 with an aggressive form of brain cancer and had kept her illness private to focus on her work.

Her early work included an acclaimed violin concerto but her international breakthrough came with her debut opera L’Amour de loin in 2000.

Peter Sellars, who directed it, spoke of the “secret beauty” of her music.

It was not until April 2023 that her most recent opera Innocence made its UK debut at the Royal Opera House.

Set at an international school in Helsinki, it deals with a mass shooting and is sung in nine languages.

Her final work, a trumpet concerto called Hush, was only completed at the end of March and will have its premiere in Helsinki, where she was born in 1952.

Last year she told the BBC about how the natural world had inspired her: “I was a very solitary child and I spent all the summers in my mother’s home village surrounded by big forests on a lake that I loved the sound.”

She has spoken of how she was fascinated by the sound of the wind, footsteps in the snow or the sound of waves and learned to play the violin, piano and guitar and then the organ in local churches.

Peter Sellars, who directed many of her operatic works, said her music had an inexhaustible life force. “There’s no other music in the world like it. Every performance is freshly amazing,” he told BBC Radio 3.She was listed in a BBC Music magazine survey by the world’s leading composers as 17th out of the 50 greatest of all time, in between Brahms and Haydn.

Saariaho studied with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and composer Magnus Lindberg at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki in the 1970s. They had all benefited from Finland’s national network of music schools and went on to form a Finnish society called Korvat auki (Ears Open) dedicated to contemporary music.

Eventually she tired of being identified as Finland’s only female composer and moved first to Germany and then to Paris, where in 1982 she took a course in computer music at the renowned avant‑garde Ircam institute.

In Finland she has remained a role model for composers, both men and women.

Earlier this year, in an interview with BBC Music Matters, Saariaho said she still felt very Finnish. “I don’t think I ever moved away from Finland really. I tend to be very straight and sincere. I don’t enjoy speaking publicly, I don’t enjoy arguing, and I think that’s what French people do a lot.”

In Paris she met Jean-Baptiste Barrière, who she later married and collaborated with. When the Covid pandemic struck in 2020, she was visiting Helsinki while he was still in Paris.

“I will be separated from my husband longer than ever before,” she said at the time.

In her family’s statement on Friday, they said her case should help highlight the plight of immuno-compromised individuals. “Twice Kaija has contracted Covid in public events where insufficient measures were taken, if at all, to protect the most fragile among us.”

In a tribute, the Orchestre de Paris said it was with immense sadness that it had learned of the death of Kaija Saariaho “with whom we shared so many wonderful musical moments”.

The Royal Opera House said she was one of the most significant composers of her day and had an immense impact on its audiences.

Source: bbcnews

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