Q&A: Cellist Anssi Karttunen

Classic Arts Features   Q&A: Cellist Anssi Karttunen
Music Director Jacques Lacombe and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra present Fire: Light & Legend, the third and final program in the Orchestra’s 2012 Winter Festival—FIRE Jan. 20-22. Anssi Karttunen performs Kaija Saariaho's Notes on Light as part of the program.


The festival’s closing program touches on the earliest days of the symphony with Haydn’s “Fire” Symphony, and it reaches forward into contemporary life with Kaija Saariaho’s cello concerto Notes on Light, performed by Anssi Karttunen—the Finnish cellist for which Saariaho wrote the work. The program’s finale is a new vision for a Beethoven classic—The Creatures of Prometheus—and the true capstone of the NJSO festival.

Kaija Saariaho, Carnegie Hall’s composer-in-residence, is an important figure in modern music. Prior to the January 21st concert, Saariaho will host a Classical Conversation pre-concert talk about her inspirations and her cello concerto Notes on Light. She will also be on hand to hear Karttunen perform her piece.

Q & A with Anssi Karttunen

What is it like to have Kaija Saariaho compose a piece specifically for you?

I have a very privileged relationship with Kaija Saariaho. Having known her for over 30 years as a very close friend and colleague it seems to me perfectly natural whenever a new piece arrives from her. It is a great luxury to have such a trusting relationship that we can both discuss each other’s work without any fear of being misunderstood. This doesn’t mean that I could anticipate what she is going to write next, nor that I would want to influence it, but it does mean that I can be fairly confident that I can trust my instincts when getting to know any new piece of hers.

Is there a particular artist/orchestra that you would love to perform with and why?

To meet a new orchestra and conductor, in this case the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and Jacques Lacombe is always exciting. There is that potential of something very special and unique, which cannot be planned. I can try to bring in my experience and in return learn from a collective experience of the orchestra and conductor and there is no way the result will ever be the same than anywhere else.

Can you describe the process you go through when preparing for a performance?

All performers must have their own way of preparing for a performance, in my case I have always liked to work from the big picture towards the detail, which can feel very scary at times. I like to spend a lot of time playing and reading a piece through, walking around the problems, as it were - and letting as many of the difficulties work themselves out. I feel it is essential to let the music point you towards its own solutions instead of me imposing a method that would be suitable for one composer but totally out of place for another.

Was there a defining moment or breakthrough when you decided that music would be your life?

I don’t remember that decisive moment, maybe there was one, but I do remember how special I felt when I spent my pocket money to buy my first stereo set and put on my parent’s LP of Stravinsky’s Firebird. Pretty soon after that I announced to my parents that, “by the way, in case you are interested, I’ll become a cellist”.

When I want to get away from it all I…”

Classical musicians always get asked this question, and I feel that it is asked to provide some kind of validation of one’s choice of dedicating oneself to this “obscure” lifestyle.

In the same way that I can’t say who my favorite “classical” composer or recording artist is, I also can’t single out any other type of favorite music or musician. Whether or not I listen to Lady Gaga at home seems irrelevant to me.

The fact is that I don’t believe music is the best way of getting away from music.


“Notes on Light has an almost transparent quality—it creates beautiful colors, like when you look at a prism and the colors are slowly changing,” Lacombe says. “It’s extremely well written for both the cellist and the orchestra. It’s more a piece about mood and colors than anything else, and it will create a very nice contrast between the Haydn and the Beethoven.”

For the Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus, Lacombe synthesizes music, dance, speech and light into a gripping new take on the mythical moment when fire transformed human life.

Dancers from The Francesca Harper Project, lyricist and playwright Murray Horwitz and lighting designer Albert Crawford (of Arc3design) collaborate to bring Beethoven’s work to life. The all-new commission will feature actors André De Shields as Zeus and Claybourne Elder as Prometheus; they will narrate while dancers perform, supported by Arc3design’s lighting.

“Presenting excerpts from Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus with ballet and narration will be really exciting,” Lacombe says. “When possible, I like to use the Winter Festival to present unusual things, or to explore different ways of presenting music. To have dancers on stage, around or perhaps even in the orchestra, and to have actors reading text is something unusual but exciting, and I think the Winter Festival has to go in that direction. The overture to [the Beethoven work] is fairly well-known, but the rest is rarely done.”

Performances take place on Friday, January 20, (8 p.m.) at the Richardson Auditorium in Princeton, Saturday, January 21, (8 p.m.) at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark and Sunday, January 22, (3 p.m.) at the State Theatre in New Brunswick. A special Winter Festival pre-concert event—“Hero as Myth: Prometheus Unveiled”—begins one hour before the January 20 and January 22 performances in Princeton and New Brunswick, respectively. Notes on Light composer Kaija Saariaho gives a Classical Conversation at 7 p.m. on January 21 in Newark. The January 21 performance will also feature an Information Fair & Artisan Marketplace; artisans who work with fire and environmental organizations will host displays in the Prudential Hall lobby before the concert and during intermission.

Tickets range in price from $20 to $85 and are available for purchase online at www.njsymphony.org or by phone at 1.800.ALLEGRO (255.3476).

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