The Northwestern University School of Music today announced that Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is the 2008 winner of the $100,000 Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition. The biennial award honors classical modern composers of outstanding achievement who have significantly affected the field of composition. Past winners include John Adams (2004) and Oliver Knussen (2006).
Saariaho was cited by the selection committee for “transforming avant-garde techniques into a world of luminous, shifting color and emotional depth, mirroring the human experience.”
As winner of the 2008 Nemmers Prize, Saariaho receives a cash award of $100,000 and during the 2009-10 season a performance of one of her works by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She also will be in residence at Northwestern University’s School of Music during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 academic years. Her first residency is scheduled for January 2009.
Kaija Saariaho said, “I am very honored to have received the Nemmers Prize. Awards of this rank are important because they recognize a composer’s life work and the great effort required to develop and deepen a musical style. I was especially happy to read the prize citation because it indicates that I have been successful in reaching some of my musical goals.”
Northwestern University School of Music Dean Toni-Marie Montgomery said, “Ms. Saariaho has extended both musical vocabulary and instrumental technique into a new language that is profoundly beautiful and highly personal. Our students and faculty look forward to welcoming her to the Evanston and Chicago communities.”
The anonymous, three-member Nemmers Prize committee that selected Saariaho comprised individuals of widely recognized stature in the international music community.
The Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Musical Composition is made possible through a generous gift from the late Erwin E. Nemmers and Frederic E. Nemmers, who in 1994 enabled the creation of the Erwin Plein Nemmers Prize in Economics and the Frederic Esser Nemmers Prize in Mathematics, leading awards in those fields.
Born in Helsinki, Finland in 1952, Kaija Saariaho studied at the Sibelius Academy with the pioneering modernist Paavo Heininen. She continued her studies at the Freiburg Hochschule with Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber and, from 1982, at the IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) research institute in Paris – the city which has been her home ever since.
Through IRCAM, Saariaho became allied with the French ‘spectralist’ composers, whose techniques are based on computer analysis of the sound-spectrum of individual notes on different instruments. While there, she developed techniques of computer-assisted composition and acquired fluency in working on tape and with live electronics. She first came to public attention with her compositions “Verblendungen” for orchestra and tape (1982-84), “Lichtbogen” for chamber ensemble and live electronics (1985-86), and “Nymphea” (1987) that was commissioned by New York’s Lincoln Center for the Kronos Quartet. In recent years she has transformed her language into one of transparent clarity that focuses on color, timbre and expressiveness.
With a catalog of more than 80 works of every genre, Saariaho’s major pieces include the violin concerto “Graal theatre” (1994), written for violinist and conductor Gidon Kremer; the vocal works “Chateau de l’ame” (1996) and “Lohn” (1996), both written for soprano Dawn Upshaw and commissioned by the Salzburg Festival and the Vienna Modern Music Festival, respectively; “Oltra mar” (1998-99), premiered by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; a flute concerto, “Aile du songe” (2001) for flutist Camilla Hoitenga; “Nymphea Reflection” (2001) for string orchestra; “Orion” (2002) for the Cleveland Orchestra; and “Quatre Instants” (2002) for soprano Karita Mattila.
Saariaho has enjoyed particular success with her large works for voice. Her first opera “L’Amour de loin” (2000), with a libretto by Amin Maalouf, is based on the life of 12th century troubadour Jaufre Rudel. Commissioned by the Salzburg Festival and the Theatre du Chatelet, it received widespread acclaim when premiered in 2000 with Dawn Upshaw in the leading role and Peter Sellars as director. Two years later the piece won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award. A second opera, “Adriana Mater” (2005), also with a libretto by Maalouf and directed by Sellars, was premiered at the Opera Bastille.
It was presented this spring by the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki and will be heard this summer at the Santa Fe Opera. An evening-long oratorio “La Passion de Simone” (2007), with a libretto by Maalouf, was commissioned by the Wiener Festwochen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Barbican Centre and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts for a 2006 premiere at Peter Sellars’ New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna. The piece centers on the life and works of philosopher Simone Weil. Performances have since taken place at the Barbican Centre in London and in Helsinki, with future presentations scheduled at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts this summer and in January 2009 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Recent world premieres for Saariaho include “Notes on Light,” commissioned and performed by the Boston Symphony; “Terra Memoria” for the Emerson String Quartet; and “Mirage,” written for soprano Karita Mattila and cellist Anssi Karttunen, by the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. The latter has already been performed 10 times throughout the world. Saariaho is currently at work on an orchestral piece for the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle conducting.
Among Saariaho’s many honors and awards are the designation of “2008 Composer of the Year” by Musical America, the Prix Italia, and the Musical Award of the North Council. Her music can be heard on more than 40 compact discs on the Deutsche Gramophone, SONY, ECM, EMI and Ondine labels, among others.