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Lights in the north, Finns at the BSO

Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.

I have never actually witnessed the atmospheric wonder known as the Northern Lights, but with its bright bursts of color against a vast arctic sky, it must be similar to the music of Kaija Saariaho. This excellent Finnish composer is a master of sonic iridescence, a creator of blazing nightscapes for orchestra. One of her earlier works was actually inspired by the aurora borealis, and her newest piece is called "Notes on Light."

Commissioned by the BSO to mark its 125th anniversary, "Notes on Light" received its world premiere Thursday night at Symphony Hall, with the orchestra led by the Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste. The program also included early works by Debussy and Sibelius. There seemed to be more empty seats in Symphony Hall than I have seen at most BSO concerts this season. A shame, as the program was richly rewarding, even if it was not buoyed by standard household names.

Saariaho wrote this fascinating new work for her longtime collaborator, the Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen, who was naturally the soloist Thursday night. Interesting, while many new works struggle for an initial boost beyond their world premiere, "Notes on Light" already has numerous performances scheduled by different orchestras well into 2008, an indication of how Saariaho's fame has spread since the 2000 premiere of her entrancing opera "L'Amour de Loin."

Previous Saariaho works written for Karttunen tended to focus the ear on the minute surface details of sound, with pieces that often resemble extended studies in acoustic texture, often with the help of electronic input. In this case, she has written a far more extroverted work, a cello concerto in all but name, with the orchestra and soloist engaged in an ever-shifting dialogue that is loosely divided into five movements.

At work from the start is Saariaho's sensitive ear and highly individual feel for orchestral color, later enhanced by bright splashes of percussion. In the first movement, downward-sloping glissandi in the strings suggest movement toward an interior domain. The solo cello, often in stratospheric registers, volleys passionately with the orchestra. Saariaho uses many of her signature extended techniques, including notes purposefully crushed with the bow until they resemble noise. In the fourth movement, the cellist falls silent for long stretches as the life seems to slowly drain from the orchestra. The fifth movement, titled "Heart of Light" after a quote from "The Waste Land," ends with a long-held pianissimo F-sharp, a fade to white, and a capacious silence.

Saariaho's music sounds like no one else's, but the influence of Debussy is often palpable. Thursday night began with a vivid account of that composer's "Printemps," but Saraste was at his most inspired after intermission when leading the orchestra in an exciting rendition of Sibelius's "Four Legends from the Kalevala." He used sweeping gestures from the podium to chisel out expressive lines from the orchestra , and Robert Sheena provided delicately inflected English horn solos in the famous "Swan of Tuonela ." The strings played with strength, flexibility, and a tone of dark beauty .

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at