By Laurie Niles
Back in the 1990s Anne Akiko Meyers discovered a recording that stopped her in her tracks: Cantus Arcticus, by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara.
"I was always flipping through CDs and sheet music at stores, trying to discover new works that were under the radar," Meyers told me last week over the phone. "That's how I came across the 'Concerto for Birds and Orchestra.' I was blown away by the sheer beauty of the music, and the way Rautavaara incorporated nature into a symphony. He actually went into a preserve and recorded birds chirping and singing, and that became an organic part of music. I listened to the recording many, many times on repeat."
The more she explored Rautavaara's works, the more she loved the music.
"I'm a lifelong fan," she said. "I've always been very enamored with these mystical, mythical composers like Arvo Pärt and Rautavaara."
In fact, last year she worked with Arvo Pärt to record his Passacaglia -- it made her think once again about Rautavaara. Might he like to compose a piece for her?
"It was always a dream of mine," she said. "I wondered, what is he up to, these days? I sent an e-mail to (his publisher) Boosey and Hawkes. You can risk getting a 'No' from a composer; it's always worth asking. I've commissioned many composers recently, and found that timing is crucial." The list of composers that Meyers has worked with and commissioned works from is long, and includes Mason Bates, Jakub Ciupinski, John Corigliano, Jennifer Higdon, Samuel Jones, Wynton Marsalis Somei Satoh, and Joseph Schwantner.
"I've become more tenacious about it," she said. Her tenacity paid off: "Immediately I got the response: 'He would love to write something for you. How long of a piece would you like?'"
Rautavaara had already written a violin concerto, "so I thought, what would pique his curiosity and be stylistically up his alley? That's when I came up with the idea of a 15-minute fantasy," Meyers said. "He sent me the music at the end of the summer, handwritten on manuscript paper. I was just smitten. Immediately I could sense overtones of Cantus Arcticus, and also his Symphony No. 7, the Angel of Light."
That was in 2015. If she'd waited any longer, their collaboration may never have happened; Rautavaara died in July 2016, at the age of 87. The work Meyers commissioned, called "Fantasia," was among the last pieces he wrote. She recorded it in May with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Kristjan Järvi. Due to his recent death, she has made it available as a single on Amazon. It will be the title track on her upcoming album Fantasia: The Fantasy Album, to be released in spring 2017.
Though Rautavaara did not live to hear the work in concert, he heard Meyers play it in person. After sending her the work, "he invited me to come to Helsinki," Meyers said. "I was so excited to go. I flew out in December 2015 and played the piece for him.
The second I finished, he turned to me, smiled so brightly and said, 'Wow, did I write some beautiful, beautiful music!' (She laughs) I thought that was the sweetest thing ever! Because it really is so deeply spiritual, poetic and beautiful."
"We played it again, and I expected him to say, 'Oh, this note, I'm not so sure...' I was also nervous about the bowings that I had changed, because his bowings were very specifically marked," she said. "The bowings really change the direction and meaning of the phrases."
Rautavaara liked it, though. "He said immediately, 'I love what you did, I don't have much confidence in myself with markings, especially bowings. I think you really brought out the phrasing to make it sing as much as possible, so let's use all your bowings.' That was that! No dynamic changes, no note changes, nothing," Meyers said. He knew what he wanted.
Though his health may have been in decline, Rautavaara was at the height of his composing powers, she said. "There's just so much experience and a rich, vast wisdom that he had, right in his fingertips. I think it's one of the most beautiful pieces ever composed."