It is still somewhat unusual for a soloist to be invited to perform new music for a first-time appearance with a major symphony orchestra. But for Valdine Anderson, the Canadian soprano making her Philharmonic debut in the New York premiere of Kaija Saariaho's 1996 Château de l'âme (May 22-24), it seems perfectly natural.
"I always assumed it was what everyone wanted to do!" says Anderson, who relishes the collaborative opportunities of working with living composers. "Quite often I don't meet them until just prior to the performance and I've got my own idea of how I want to do it. They either say: 'Great; do it any way you want' or 'I want to change everything!'" In any case, being the soprano of choice for composers, who include Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, Michael Torke, and Gavin Bryars, has given Ms. Anderson invaluable insights into the music of our time.
To date, however, most of her opportunities on the operatic stage have been in more familiar fare, as new works remain infrequent novelties at most opera houses. The tried-and-true repertoire, says Ms. Anderson, presents "a different challenge because there are standard interpretations that everybody's familiar with. You want to forge your own, but you're held to the tradition."
Ironically, Ms. Anderson's experience with standard repertoire may prove more valuable than her new-music background in preparing for Château de l'âme. Although the work is just seven years old, it already boasts a significant performance history, including a stellar recording featuring another new-music great, Dawn Upshaw, and a previous performance in Boston by Anderson herself.
And, while the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho became known for experiments with spectral music, in Château she has embraced a more traditional melodic vocabulary and a text based on ancient Egyptian and Sanskrit love poems. "Her text is quite passionate," Valdine points out, "but it has a nurturing feeling."
Frank J. Oteri is a New York-based composer and editor of NewMusicBox.org, the American Music Center's award winning Web magazine.