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Rehearsing "Odysseia" with Saimaa Sinfonietta and clarinetist Lauri Sallinen

I promised to myself some time ago that I need to find time to write more about modern music and give some recommendations about new pieces and composers that I enjoy listening to. As my readers know I conduct a lot of modern music and that has given me kind of a reputation which means that composers and publishers are literally bombarding me with new scores and recent recordings.

The scores I receive by mail and e-mail are way too numerous for me to study, so I would like to give a little advice to young composers sending their pieces to conductors. The best advice is - include a live recording whenever possible. That way I can listen to the piece and make a decision right away whether I like it or not. MIDI files are not a good idea usually - they tend to give me headache. The minimum requirement is that your score looks professional, and believe me when I say drawing a professional looking score either by hand or with a notation software is all but a lost art.

To be completely honest - if there is no audio accompanying your score it is very unlikely I would sit down at the piano and start studying it. I only do this favor to composers I know personally and whose music I already like. I know very well that I might miss some real gems, but the fact is, there are simply too many new scores and too little time for me to take part in a kind of lottery with composers I have never even heard of.

That all said, I would now like to introduce a composer whose works I enjoy very much. He is Mikko Nisula, and I first got to know him more than ten years ago when I went to St. Petersburg to study conducting. At that time he was finishing his composition studies with Boris Tischenko. In St. Petersburg I also heard his Chamber Concerto No. 1 in a concert and got right away interested. Taking a look at Mikko's (hand-written) scores gave me an impression that here is a composer who knows exactly what he wants and how to get it in terms of orchestration. Later I heard Mikko Nisula's Chamber Concerto No.2 performed by Sinfonietta Lentua, as well as his orchestra songs Mysterious Dreams with Tapiola Sinfonietta, and they just confirmed me that he is a major talent and that I would love to perform some music of his as well.

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We had correspondence over several years and Mikko faithfully sent me all his new orchestra scores as soon as he got them ready, until last fall I finally found a chance to program his piece for a joint concert with my orchestra St. Michel Strings and the Lappeenranta City Orchestra (who perform these concerts under the name Saimaa Sinfonietta). The piece in question was his Sinfonia Concertante Op. 24 (Odysseia) for clarinet and small symphony orchestra, and it had been completed already in 2009. It was a hand-written score, of course, so we had to find funds to draw the parts according to modern standards and go through some other troubles before the piece was ready to be rehearsed.

Neither orchestra was familiar with Mikko's music from before, but it was clear from the first rehearsal that this piece was going to sound great. In the second rehearsal we were joined by the clarinet soloist Lauri Sallinen, whose playing actually was one of the inspirations for composing the piece in the first place. Lauri ended up playing our two performances by heart, which is also not a small effort considering we were playing a world premiere of a completely new piece. The piece got glowing reviews in the local press, and feedback from both audience and the musicians was positive as well.

What can I say about the piece, then? Mikko Nisula is a big fan of French music, so it is no wonder that the orchestral colors he uses sometimes remind me of the impressionists. He himself mentioned that his multi-layered detailwork has been influenced by Szymanowski. In the program leaflet Mikko wrote about his piece:

"Sinfonia Concertante (Odysseia) for clarinet and orchestra, Op. 24 took shape during years 2007-9 mostly inspired by Homer's epic Odysseia. I started the piece as a clarinet concerto, but early on I decided to name it a symphony, since the musical narrative was carried mainly by the orchestra, while the clarinet was accompanying it by slightly oriental melodies and by commenting the orchestral events during brief cadenzas.

I based my music freely on three episodes by Homer, all of which had something to do with the sea. The first movement, Ulysses and the Sea, tells a story where the sea god Poseidon is gradually raising a storm thus trying to destroy Ulysses. The sea is represented by an augmented harmony, a "sea motif", and the textures in the string writing. The second movement, The Song of the Sirens, is a free ABA form which showcases various impressionistic devices as well as a polyphonic culmination. The finale of the symphony, The Great Feast of Troy, is a dance-like fantasy on the celebration of Ulysses' victory over Troy. The form here as well as in the opening movement is sonata-like. The "sea motif" returns and brings the work into a climax in the Andante section - majestic ships are raising their sails and disappearing into the blue horizon."

All in all, the piece was a big success and I will be doing my best to get more performances for it in the coming seasons with different orchestras. If you got interested, contact me and I'll send you an audio sample of the piece as well as some score pages. And if you have clarinetist friends looking for a new piece to play with the orchestra - here's a keeper!