Monday, February 22, 2010
Last Saturday night’s concert at Carnegie Hall was, for me – and I believe many music-lovers – a milestone that confirmed two things: the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert (a client of our company, 21C Media Group) are making some truly stunning sounds together (their overture to Wagner’s Rienzi was probably the most unbuttoned and viscerally exciting thing I’ve heard them do together); and Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto, which received its US premiere by the work’s dedicatee and greatest advocate, Kari Kriikku, is one of the truly great pieces written in the 21st century (it premiered in 2002).
I’ve listened to music by Lindberg over the years, on a few key CDs from Deutsche Grammophon and Ondine, and while I’d always been utterly impressed the composer’s dazzling orchestration, I hadn’t yet had a breakthrough experience with a particular Lindberg work (such as my discovery of Messiaen’s L’Ascension when I was working at DG, which triggered my years-long obsession with the composer). But hearing Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto changed all that for me.
Like the Ligeti Violin Concerto, one of my touchstone late 20th-century works, Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto possesses a kind of miraculous strangeness that makes you feel like you’re visiting another world. Watching Kriikku play the work live was like watching a top Olympic athlete giving a gold-medal performance: He used his whole body, swaying hear, crouching there – it was a tour de force in every way. He wailed on the instrument as required, and then caressed it, all the while fearlessly conquering the rapid-fire passages that were thrown his way. If you had been blindfolded you might not have guessed that some of the sounds you were hearing could possibly be produced by a clarinet. While the work suggested the sensuousness of Debussy and Ravel (especially the searching theme for the clarinet that opens the work and reappears later in various guises), the ravishing climaxes that conjured up Messiaen, and the otherworldly atmosphere of Rautavaara, the Clarinet Concerto is signature Lindberg. If you don’t own Kriikku’s recording on Ondine, which won a Gramophone Award, I urge you to seek it out.
New Yorkers are lucky to be getting a bumper crop of Lindberg in this and the coming season, as he is the New York Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence. Earlier this season, as part of his duties for the Phil, he conducted four new works commissioned by the Orchestra for its new CONTACT! contemporary music series. Lindberg’s EXPO was the first work Alan conducted with the orchestra when he officially became music director in September (they recently performed it during their European tour), and he’s writing a new work that Gilbert will premiere on a season-ending programme that includes Beethoven’s monumental Missa solemnis (Jun 23–26).
I’ve had the pleasure to get to know Lindberg through my work with Alan. He is warm, exceedingly affable, and extremely funny. I spoke with him this past Tuesday at a press conference announcing Alan’s second season with the New York Philharmonic and joked that he would see a rise in income on his royalty statement because I ordered a number of other CDs of his music after my experience with his Clarinet Concerto. At the press conference we learned that Lindberg’s KRAFT would be given its first New York performance by Alan and the Phil next season. Lindberg noted that it would also be the premiere indoor performance in the United States, as the work’s US premiere was given just over a decade ago at California’s Ojai Festival. Alluding to the somewhat infamous reputation of KRAFT as a noisemaker (it features amplification and a battery of junk-metal percussion), Lindberg said, “The poor woodpeckers went crazy".
My experiences over the past two seasons hearing such works as Esa-Pekka Salonen’s scintillating Piano Concerto with the Philharmonic (in a thrilling performance by Yefim Bronfman, another 21C client), and various other performances and recordings, underlined for me the extraordinary reality that Finland’s composers are producing some of the best music of our time. Thinking about this the other night I Googled “Finnish Composers", and happily discovered a list long enough to keep me busy for a long while. Seeing the list encouraged me to revisit several recordings on my CD shelf immediately. Most memorable this past week have been Rautavaara’s evocative string quartets, on Ondine, and his visionary, Poe-inspired work for chorus and orchestra, On The Last Frontier, also on Ondine (read Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket first if you really want to take the full ride). Kalevi Aho’s Symphony No 8 for Organ and Orchestra (BIS) was also an enormously compelling listen. The dreamy, mystical Epilogue of this craggy, powerful work by Aho is worth the price of admission: if you like your orchestral music weighty and intense, you won’t be disappointed.
A new discovery from my list of Finnish composers is Uuno Klami (1900-61). One writer called him the Finnish Ravel, which certainly got my attention – though such simplistic descriptions obscure as much as they reveal – as did the observation that the mere fact of Klami’s existence proved there were other Finnish composers alive at the time of the undisputed patriarch of Finnish music, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). Imagine that! So I searched Gramophone’s archive for some hints, and headed to iTunes, where I downloaded another illuminating Ondine recording. I was immediately drawn in by the first work on my new all-Klami album, Aurora borealis (Op 38): clearly Klami is a tone-painter of considerable sensitivity and resourcefulness. The biggest work on the album, which features John Storgårds conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic, is his Kalevala Suite (1933-43), apparently the composer’s most famous composition. The clarinet theme that appears over shimmering strings in its final movement, “The Forging of the Sampo", evokes Sibelius, but the slow-building climaxes – punctuated by thwacks of deep bells – brought to mind Hindemith’s Harmonie der Welt, a personal favourite that I long to see on a concert programme once before I die.
At the Philharmonic press conference they announced that Esa-Pekka Salonen would lead a mini-festival next season of music inspired by Hungary (Haydn, Bartók and Ligeti will be the stars of those shows). Since Alan is already conducting so much Scandinavian music (in addition to Lindberg and Sibelius with the Phil, he’s done some wicked good Nielsen with other orchestras, and rumour has it that the great Dane’s symphonies will appear in future Philharmonic programmes), I won’t expect a Scandinavian Festival will soon follow. For now, I feel grateful enough to Alan and the Phil for putting Lindberg so squarely on New York’s musical map.