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Towards a third practice: of Monteverdi, of change and of virtuoso freedom

by Tove Djupsjöbacka

Third Practice, a new production by the Tero Saarinen Company in collaboration with the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra, is a hybrid artwork exploring change, remembering and forgetting, all to the tune of the music of Claudio Monteverdi.

Tero Saarinen is one of Finland’s internationally most prominent dance artists and choreographers, known not only for his own impressive movement language but also for his capability to create comprehensive artworks. In his productions, powerful elements from various branches of the arts enter into an exciting dialogue.

In Saarinen’s most recent production, Third Practice, his company takes on the music of Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) with some of Finland’s finest Baroque musicians from the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra. The music director is Aapo Häkkinen, and the dancers and musicians are joined on stage by tenor Topi Lehtipuu and virtual soprano Núria Rial. This production marks the achievement of a long-standing dream of Saarinen’s to create a work based on Monteverdi’s music.

Third Practice was premiered in Cremona, Italy in May 2019 and given its first performance in Finland at the Kuopio Dance Festival celebrating its 50th anniversary in June 2019.

“Creating comprehensive artworks has always been a part of who I am,” says Tero Saarinen. “I like bringing experts from different fields together to find a balance and a shared rhythm while considering how to merge all these elements into a clear, profound and resonating message.”

For harpsichord player Aapo Häkkinen, artistic director of the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra, there were many new things in this work process, and he feels that the production has helped him see things in a new way, which in turn will lend added depth to his music-making going forward. “It’s an entirely new creation, there was no road map to work from. Compared with producing an opera, a dance work is an abstract drama,” Häkkinen says.


Change in us, change in history

Tero Saarinen points to change as a major theme in the production.

“In this work, I address those moments in human development where we desire change. What are we as human beings, and what is our responsibility as human beings for holding up a mirror to developments in the world, such as artificial intelligence? And what does history teach us about change?”

Saarinen also reports that he thinks a lot about focusing on a single issue, about taking a good hard look at the skills and expertise of humankind. It is time to recalibrate our idea of humanity amidst today’s torrent of impulses.

Saarinen sees Monteverdi as the anchor in this work, both as a human being and as a creative artist.

“He is a good and comforting example of focusing on a single thing and discovering something quite new in it. It’s a bit like with me and dance: developing my own movement language is a challenging mission, but it is also brings calm and relief. We should not lose or belittle or destroy the competence we already have; we should enjoy and celebrate it while continuing to seek new things. Change is inevitable, of course.”

“In madrigals, love is a dominant theme, albeit it is also used as a metaphor for struggle, competition and war,” Saarinen notes. “I would like to see it above all as an internal conflict. Why can’t we ever be satisfied with what we have? Why can’t we simply focus and concentrate on the matter at hand and just be calm and carry on?”

Change, as a concept, is closely related to memory and remembering. Turning points in our lives are opportunities for discovery, but the flip side of this is that they also cause us to forget things.

“Monteverdi and the late Renaissance fit this theme admirably,” Saarinen continues. “The bridge built to Antiquity and its values, such as education, skill, tolerance and professionalism. Yet an artist must always be alert and awake, mindful of the time in which he lives, and not cut himself off from his environment. We have to embrace change and try to understand it, without losing our own essence, background and knowledge.”

Madrigals, choices and freedom

Claudio Monteverdi wrote more than 150 madrigals in his career, and a selection of them runs through Third Practice as a scarlet thread. Aapo Häkkinen, as musical director of the production, sought to include lesser known works in addition to Monteverdi’s ‘greatest hits’.

“Monteverdi’s output is extensive and quite well preserved, particularly the madrigals,” says Häkkinen. “They date from across the composer’s long and varied career and thus represent a broad range of styles.”

For early music specialists, there is much that is unusual in this production. The sound is amplified and includes some modification and effects. Häkkinen is credited with arranging the music for the production, but at this he gives a wry smile: in early music, what we would call arranging is simply part of the performance practice.

“In order to be able to perform Monteverdi at all, every performer has to make a huge number of choices and decisions, beginning with the instrumentation, because none of his scores specify any instruments. We need to look back 400 years, and there is no way of knowing what the music actually sounded like at the time. Research and experience have taught us a great deal about the major structural elements of the music of this period, and details about its performance practice are also known.”

Tenor Topi Lehtipuu has a challenging role to play on stage. The other vocal soloist is a virtual soprano, Catalonian singer Núria Rial, who was recorded on audio and video beforehand. “The musicians are on stage all the time,” says Aapo Häkkinen. “The number of musicians is the same as the number of dancers, so the whole ensemble is symmetrical. We play live with Núria’s playback numbers, but even there we have a lot of freedom. We didn’t use a click track or anything.”


Towards a third practice

Monteverdi’s contemporaries used the term seconda pratica [second practice], or stile moderno [modern style], to distinguish Monteverdi’s composition style from that of his predecessors, referred to as prima pratica [first practice]. This is the reason for the title of the present work, Third Practice. In Monteverdi’s day, new practices emerged that allowed musicians more freedom than previously. Tero Saarinen says that he tries to retain a certain freedom and improvisational quality even in such a large and precisely planned work.

“I’ve tried to preserve opportunities for ‘virtuoso freedom’. The ‘third practice’ that we are talking about could mean for instance performing on stage so that your own skill and virtuoso flair create a space where you can freely express yourself in any way you know how, pouring out your inspiration and mental state at that particular moment – so that not everything is planned in advance. Performers should have a certain greed and passion for living in the moment and in the space, so that things don’t stagnate in the mind.

“Monteverdi’s madrigals may seem simple, but they contain a lot of information and a lot of friction, which is always interesting for me,” says Saarinen. “This hybrid artform allows us to sense, listen to and smell Monteverdi in a slightly different way.”

Featured photo by Sami Kulju: Núria Rial and Topi Lehtipuu
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi