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With the Crack of a Whip, and a Warm Embrace

By Scott Timberg
09 May 2012

Magnus Lindberg
photo by Chris Lee

Magnus Lindberg’s journey as a composer, and three years as the Philharmonic’s Composer-in-Residence, has brought the former radical to a warm embrace of tradition. Scott Timberg explores the path that has led to the premiere of the Finn’s Piano Concerto No. 2 this month.


**

Magnus Lindberg has a reputation as a mercurial, sometimes impish modernist who rarely stays in the same musical place for long. His work has drawn on musique concrète, “industrial” music, wild theatricality – the whole toolkit of the avantgarde. But something about his three years as the New York Philharmonic’s Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence seems to have mellowed the wily Finn. “This project,” he says of his latest piece, “was the first time in my career that I’ve come back to the same genre. My first piano concerto was 20 years ago.”

That earlier piece introduced the composer to this form that is still primarily associated with Mozart and the Romantic composers who followed. This month Lindberg’s Second Piano Concerto receives its World Premiere by the New York Philharmonic, which co-commissioned it along with Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestras. Beginning just a few days later, it then figures on the Orchestra’s CALIFORNIA 2012 tour. “I’ve spent 15 months, full-time, writing this piece,” the composer says. “It took me on a long journey. It’s a big concerto, for a full orchestra.” The piece was written with Yefim Bronfman in mind and what Lindberg calls his “bold, structural approach.”

There was a time when the composer did not smile so warmly on classical tradition. As part of a wave of Young Turks at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki in the late 1970s, he was drawn to work that broke, sometimes violently, from what he saw as an insular tradition of Finnish romanticism. With fellow composers Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho he formed the Open Ears Society; with Salonen he also founded the risk-taking Toimii Ensemble, which unveiled some of his earlier works.

“We wanted to go for the modernist trends,” Lindberg recalls, describing an attraction to “very rough” pieces by Boulez and Stockhausen. He also engaged with music outside the classical world altogether: at conservatory, and during summers in Italy and Germany and various travels soon after, he was drawn to Japanese drumming, punk rock, and electronic music. He admired what he called “the impact of sound” that he heard in these other styles. He even dug through junkyards to find castoff pieces of metal that sounded right.

“Even though I have an academic background, I’ve always had a curiosity about different genres of music, primarily by their sound worlds rather than the structural aspects. During my years in Berlin in the mid-’80s, the alternative scene created sound, infusing the industrial world with electronics.” And he is fascinated with “gamelan music with its wondrous metal instruments.”

One of Magnus Lindberg’s first important early pieces was the musique concrète-inspired Action-Situation-Signification from 1982. By the late 1980s he had begun to win international awards, and his career was launched.

Lindberg’s three years with the Philharmonic, which began in September 2009, have come at a time when he has been working to balance his avant-garde youth with an increasing respect for classical music and its history. “Normally when you work with an orchestra, you come and go,” he says. “You can’t make any impact on it. Here there is continuity — you get to know the players, their personalities.” This continuity, of course, extends to Alan Gilbert, who was then starting as Music Director, through a long-standing connection that has deepened considerably. “I feel like a composer from the 19th century — in a good way.”

Lindberg has many good memories of his time with the Orchestra. The very first music that Alan Gilbert led to launch his tenure in September 2009 were the opening notes of EXPO, the Finn’s first Philharmonic commission, which inspired the Associated Press to write: “With the crack of a whip and a blast of fresh air, a new era has begun for the nation’s oldest orchestra.” The work was reprised on Asian and European tours, and the season closed with a program that included another Lindberg premiere, Al largo, described by The New York Times as “a lushly colorful, brilliantly orchestrated, teeming, intriguing yet baffling work.” The following autumn the Orchestra gave the New York premiere of Kraft, one of the composer’s 1980s breakthrough pieces; it utilizes everything from amplified cello to scrap metal, stones, and a huge gong in an attempt to capture the clamor of traffic and the demolition of buildings. “It was a tremendous experience,” he recalls, “to see Avery Fisher Hall set up with 12 channels of amplification. And many in the audience were people who do not normally come to the New York Philharmonic.”

Other highlights include performances of his Clarinet Concerto (lyrical and folk-like, with not a hint of clashing steel) at Carnegie Hall; Feria (both in New York and on tour, and even on a Young People’s Concert); and Souvenir (in memoriam Gérard Grisey), a more intimate work written in honor of one of his teachers, a formative influence from his time in Paris. This last was premiered on CONTACT!, the new-music series Alan Gilbert introduced in 2009 and which Lindberg has been curating these three years, helping select the composers who would be commissioned and otherwise assisting the Music Director with programming sinfonietta-sized pieces by composers as young as Nico Muhly and as seasoned as Elliott Carter.

Overall, Lindberg found that the Philharmonic musicians have helped make this creative marriage a smooth one. “There is no difference between the way they play traditional music and new music,” he reflects. “They see them as complements to each other. Alan Gilbert has found that his approach to conducting, his approach to repertoire, can include the whole history of Western music, including the music of our time.”

Magnus Lindberg’s urge to unite old and new becomes tangible in his Piano Concerto No. 2. “In the ’80s I used the piano as a percussion instrument,” says the composer, who is also a pianist. But today, he explains, his music combines his interest in structure and complexity with his more recent passion for making the musical surface more accessible.

He has tried to bridge his early radicalism with mainstream figures such as Bartók and Ravel (who were, of course, radical in their own time). “One of the models is the Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand,” which the French composer wrote for pianist Paul Wittgenstein. “Ravel has the full forces of the orchestra, and plays very much with the dialogue between the piano and orchestra — the piano will start something, throw it to the orchestra, which throws it back.”

Lindberg’s restlessness hasn’t entirely left him, however. Immediately on completing the piece near the beginning of March, he breathed a quick sigh of relief and, with almost no preparation, jumped onto a plane to Thailand. “When you spend 15 months on a project like this, there’s always the risk of post-natal depression,” he explains. He needed to forget about the piano and its history for a little while. “Staying at home, looking at the finished piece, is not a smart thing to do.”

Back home, and with an important part of his compositional life nearly concluded, Lindberg looks forward to what he calls “many more unwritten chapters ahead.”

*

Scott Timberg writes about music and the arts for Salon, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, and other publications. He runs the West Coast Culture blog TheMisreadCity.com.




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