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Midnight Sun Variations

Born in Lapland, in the far north of Finland, Outi Tarkiainen describes her Midnight Sun Variations as “variations on the light when the sun never sets in the arctic summer night,” evoking a “rich spectrum of infinitely nuanced hues.”

Outi Tarkiainen was born February 7, 1985, in Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland, and lives there. She composed Midnight Sun Variations (Finnish: Yön auringon variaati, “Night sun variations”) on commission from BBC Radio 3 and the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Canada. John Storgårds led the BBC Philharmonic in the world premiere performance at the BBC Proms on August 4, 2019, at Royal Albert Hall, London. The score is dedicated to John Storgårds. The Boston Symphony Orchestra's February 29-March 2, 2024, performances of Midnight Sun Variations, Storgårds conducting, are the orchestra's first of any music by Outi Tarkiainen.

The score of Midnight Sun Variations calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players: I. glass wind chimes, shell wind chimes, small cymbal, clash cymbals, tam-tam, bass drum; II. vibraphone [with bow], tam-tam, gong; III. crotales [with bow], glockenspiel, marimba, waterphone [with bow], tubular bells, large gong, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, thundersheet), harp, piano and celesta, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Duration is about 11 minutes.

With the title Midnight Sun Variations, composer Outi Tarkiainen immediately places us in the region beginning some 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle where, in summer, daylight is constant. Tarkiainen grew up on the 66.5 North parallel in Rovaniemi, Finland, and returned to live there following her studies in Helsinki, the UK, and Miami, Florida. Rovaniemi, which has a population of about 65,000 and was virtually razed by the retreating German army in October 1944, is the capital of Lapland (or Lappi), the Northern Finnish region that forms part of Sápmi, or Sámiland. Sápmi, which extends from northern Norway through Sweden and Finland and into Russia, is the traditional home region of the Sámi people. The people and the region’s unique culture and mythology and its physical landscape continue to have a profound impact on Tarkiainen and her art.

Tarkiainen’s musical training began on piano, but her musical identity has always been that of a composer. She began studying classical music, then in her teens became fascinated by jazz, joining the local big band in order to perform with others and to gain experience with larger ensembles. She was soon creating arrangements and new works for the group and, in parallel with other activity, was active as a big-band composer for many years. She studied with the jazz composer and pedagogue Ron Miller at the University of Miami and also participated in master classes with the composers Vince Mendoza and Maria Schneider—all artists whose work takes an inclusive view of style, embracing the continuum from jazz to contemporary classical orchestral music. Working with jazz musicians allowed Tarkiainen to expand her technical range and sense of musical drama, given the individual soloist talents she frequently encountered among them. Her saxophone concerto Saivo was composed for a jazz saxophonist, though its overall style and voice have little in common with her definitively jazz-oriented music. Studies at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and at the Guildhall School in London expanded Tarkiainen’s experience with the orchestra and its instruments. For the past few years, orchestral works, including those with solo instruments or voice, have been her focus.

Tarkiainen’s music has been performed throughout Europe and in the U.S. by ensembles including the San Francisco Symphony (which co-commissioned her Milky Ways for English horn and orchestra and gave the U.S. premiere in 2023), Houston Symphony Orchestra, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic, BBC Philharmonic, the BBC, Scottish, Royal Stockholm, and Netherlands symphony orchestras, Austria’s Tonkünstler Orchestra, Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, among many others. Her Mosaics was premiered by the Gothenburg (Sweden) Symphony Orchestra in February 2024. Her concerto for clarinet and strings The Seasons of Love will be premiered by the Kymi Sinfonietta and clarinetist Lauri Sallinen (Tarkiainen's frequent collaborator, husband, and father of their three boys), in May 2024. The conductor John Storgårds has been a particular champion of her work.

Outi Tarkiainen was composer in residence with the Norrbotten (Sweden) Big Band in 2017 and released two albums of music with the ensemble. The first of these, Into the Woodland Silence (2013), written originally on commission for the Umo Jazz Orchestra, arose from her collaboration with the Finnish vocalist Aili Ikonen, whose open approach to vocal expression matched Tarkiainen’s exploratory interest in tone color and sound.

Into the Woodland Silence sets poetry of two major Finnish poets, Eeva-Liisa Manner and Sirkka Turkka, and is one of many works by the composer that focus on the voice, language, and narrative. She recently started working in earnest on an opera with the director, writer, and dramaturg Aleksi Barrière, son of the composers Kaija Saariaho and Jean-Baptiste Barrière. As yet without a final title, the work will primarily be in English but will also feature other languages including Sámi, the language of the Sámi people. (As Tarkiainen explains it, Sámi is Uralic language group, related to Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian, that includes nine living and one dead language. The populations speaking these languages range from several thousand to a few hundred.) Major European opera houses have already expressed interest in the project, which will feature a Sámi vocalist as well as European-trained singers.

Tarkiainen’s previous opera A Room of One’s Own, based on the Virginia Woolf essay with a libretto by Francis Hüsers, was commissioned and premiered by Theater Hagen in Hagen, Germany, in 2022 and given its Finnish premiere at the Savonlinna Festival the following year. That piece is one of many, including the voice-and-orchestra works The Lustful Mother and The Earth, Spring’s Daughter, both setting the Sámi poets Rauni Magga Lukkari and Rose-Marie Huuva, that explicitly explore the topic of womanhood, sexuality, and childbirth. Midnight Sun Variations, as the composer explains in her own comments on the piece (see page 30), is also directly related to womanhood and the experience of childbirth. In her desire to express the viewpoints and emotions of women in her work, Tarkiainen acknowledges a kinship with Kaija Saariaho, with whom she formed a warm relationship after meeting the older composer in 2017. Tarkiainen found that Saariaho’s experience as an artist and a woman resonated with her own, and she was quite moved by Saariaho’s death in June 2023. She has dedicated her forthcoming work The Rapids of Life to Saarhiaho's memory. Jointly commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic, BBC Scottish, Netherlands Philharmonic, and Gothenburg Symphony orchestras, it receives its world premiere October 4, 2024, with the Helsinki Philharmonic conducted by Pekka Kuusisto.

Midnight Sun Variations is one of a pair of orchestral pieces—the other being Songs of the Ice—conceived as an orchestral diptych (in either order) but performable independently. As the composer relates, the changing Arctic light is evoked by shimmering orchestral colors created through nuanced combinations of instruments and overlapping lines, small networks of repeated figures, with glissandi and microtonal harmonic adjustments to blur and bend the sound. This intricate, sometimes primordially powerful sound-world is shared by Songs of the Ice, which is formally a kind of mirror image of Midnight Sun VariationsSongs of the Ice ends as Midnight Sun begins. (They can be heard as a diptych in a recording, released in February 2024, by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra led by Nicolas Collon.) The composer’s note on below speaks to the relationship of music to imagery in greater detail.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.

Outi Tarkiainen’s program note on Midnight Sun Variations

“It is not our fault if, in your country, dream and reality are so closely bound together that one cannot well distinguish one from the other.”
—Robert Crottet on the land of the Lappish Skolts (Fôrets de la lune, 1949)

Midnight Sun Variations for orchestra is about the light in the arctic summer night, when the northern sky above the Arctic Circle reflects a rich spectrum of infinitely nuanced hues that, as autumn draws near, are once again veiled in darkness; when Europe’s biggest and most unpolluted wildernesses, the tundra and dense coniferous forests mystified by Jean Sibelius in his last large-scale work, Tapiola (1926), are bathed in countless shades of light.

The work begins with a sparkling ray of sunshine: the orchestra radiates and rises, playfully traces its round and goes back to the beginning again. Solitary wind solos soar above the orchestra, softly proclaiming the peace of the summer night to answering sighs from a horn. A new beginning finally emerges in the strings: a chord beating with rugged primitive force that fills the whole space with its warmth. This sets off a pulse of constantly remixing chords that ultimately fires the whole orchestra into action, until the strings break away, ascend to the heights, and impart maybe the most important message of all.

My first child was born on just such a night, as the summer’s last warm day gave way to a dawn shrouded in autumnal mist, in a flash wiping away a whole season. Midnight Sun Variations is also about the opening of a woman’s body to accommodate a new life, about giving birth, when the woman and the child within her part company, restoring her former self as the light fades into autumn. The work was commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic and The National Arts Centre Orchestra in Canada and is dedicated to John Storgards.

Translated into English by Susan Sinisalo