Kaija Saariaho
Kaija Saariaho | Credit: Priska Ketterer

The classical music world was plunged into shock and sadness Friday when news came of the death of composer Kaija Saariaho.

According to a statement released by her family, Saariaho, 70, suffered from glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. She chose to keep the condition private and was well enough to attend the U.K. premiere of her latest opera, Innocence, in April.

The unexpected announcement of her death no doubt hit particularly hard in her native country of Finland, as well as her longtime home of Paris. But it was also intensely felt in California, where much of Saariaho’s music has been commissioned and performed.

In San Francisco, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and stage director Peter Sellars — both longtime friends of and collaborators with the composer — spent Friday rehearsing a new semistaged production of her 2006 opera Adriana Mater. Those performances, June 8–11 at Davies Symphony Hall, will now serve as an informal memorial to Saariaho.

 “I’ve known Kaija since we were both very young; her family and musical life [have] always been deeply intertwined with my own,” Salonen said in a statement released Friday evening. “And so, even though she is no longer with us, I feel as though I can still feel her within her music, and see her otherworldly thought process at work.”

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the SF Symphony in Saariaho’s Adriana Mater June 8–11 | Credit: Andrew Eccles

Salonen noted that Adriana Mater, which centers on the relationship between a mother and son living in an unstable, potentially violent country, “is very much concerned with grief, with complicated feelings of love and anger, and … is permeated [with] a deep sense of loss. There is an anxiety [about] the future, of more darkness on the horizon.

“But it is also a piece about motherhood, love, and humanity, in all of its complications. It is one of Kaija’s most poignant and affecting works; to revisit this score for the first time since 2006, under these particularly tragic circumstances, is a profoundly moving experience.”

Salonen conducted a number of Saariaho’s works during his years as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. So have current Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel and former Principal Guest Conductor Susanna Mälkki, another of the composer’s close collaborators. At Walt Disney Concert Hall in October 2021, Mälkki conducted the U.S. premiere of Saariaho’s orchestral work Vista, inspired by a drive the composer took from Los Angeles to San Diego.

“Always innovative and distinctly original, Saariaho brought a profound and vibrant voice to her music,” the LA Phil wrote on social media Friday. “We cherish our many commissions and concerts we shared with her over the past three decades.”

Kaija Saariaho
Kaija Saariaho composing at home in 1986

Saariaho was born in 1952 in Helsinki. Although her family was not musical, she began violin lessons at age 6 and started composing at age 10. She told interviewers she would hear music while lying in bed as a child, at one point asking her mother to “turn off the pillow” she believed the strange sounds were coming from.

Saariaho initially studied graphic design before setting that skill aside to concentrate on music at the Sibelius Academy, where she met and befriended Salonen. In 1982, she moved to Paris and enrolled at Pierre Boulez’s avant-garde-oriented IRCAM.

Utilizing computer-generated electronics as well as traditional instruments and, above all, the human voice, she gradually created her own unique sound world, which Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb described as both “entirely original and accessible.”

Saariaho achieved international recognition in 2000 with the premiere of her opera L’Amour de loin (Love from afar). In it, she “created a stylized vision of the life of the 12th-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel, who falls in love with a countess he’s never met,” Zachary Woolfe wrote in The New York Times. “Luxuriant contemplation reigns; there is little plot, but passion surges in the restraint, with tastes of medieval harmonies and North African rhythms.”

Widely proclaimed as the first great opera of the new millennium, L’Amour de loin traveled far and wide, eventually coming to New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2016. It became only the second opera by a female composer to be staged by the company. Saariaho’s violin concerto Graal théâtre (Grail theater), written for violinist Gidon Kremer in 1994, has also proven to be an enduring success.

A scene from Saariaho’s 2021 opera Innocence | Credit: Jean-Louis Fernandez

Her last opera, Innocence, premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France in 2021 to mostly rave reviews. A grim drama about the aftermath of a school shooting, it will be staged by San Francisco Opera in June 2024 and by the Met in a future season.

“The San Francisco Opera family is heartbroken to learn of Kaija’s passing,” General Director Matthew Shilvock said in a statement issued Friday. “She brought an extraordinary radiance to the world through her music and through her being. Her vast knowledge of instrumentation, the human voice, and electronics allowed her to create works that connect us with our deepest selves, encapsulating the most profound nuances of human emotion in sound.”

Among Saariaho’s many honors are a Grawemeyer Award, the 2011 Léonie Sonning Music Prize, the 2013 Polar Music Prize, and the 2011 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording. Just a few weeks ago, on May 7, the BBC Symphony Orchestra presented a daylong “immersion” in her music.

Her final work, a trumpet concerto, is scheduled to premiere in Helsinki in August, with Mälkki conducting. Saariaho is survived by her husband, composer and artist Jean-Baptiste Barrière, and their two children, writer-director Aleksi Barrière and violinist-conductor Aliisa Neige Barrière.