Magnus Lindberg is a composer, born in 1958. His name would lead you to believe he is Swedish. He is, in fact, Finnish. He is familiar to New York audiences because he was a composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic. That was from 2009 to 2012, during the music directorship of Alan Gilbert. Lindberg studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki with, among others, the renowned Einojuhani Rautavaara. My friend and colleague Fred Kirshnit once told me about an acquaintance of his who did not know very much about modern music. The way the man in question put it was, “I wouldn’t know a Rautavaara from a rutabaga.”
Over the years, we have reviewed many Lindberg pieces in these pages. By “we,” I mean “I,” of course. About his Clarinet Concerto, composed in 2002, I enthused. Here are a few sentences:
The work is rhapsodic, tumultuous, restless. There is lots of percussion, this being a modern work, but the percussion is not without purpose. And the concerto is genuinely exciting, not merely frenetic.
On a recent night, the New York Philharmonic performed Lindberg’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which premiered in San Francisco last fall. “It is almost like an opera,” says the composer about his concerto. “It’s so rich in its storytelling.” He further says, “I have a chart of eight different characters that I’ve arranged like a William Faulkner novel. There are many stories going on at the same time.” I can only take his word for it.
In the 2011–12 season, the Philharmonic premiered Lindberg’s Piano Concerto No. 2. I would like to quote from my review (and for a purpose). The piano part, I said,
is sometimes pulverizing and Prokofiev-like. It sometimes gives you rippling Liberace arpeggios and other passagework. It sometimes gives you Warsaw Concerto bombast. As for the orchestra, it is what the orchestra is in other Lindberg works as well: kaleidoscopic, cacophonic, Disneyesque, busy, breathless, tingling.
You may be able to tell that I didn’t like this concerto all that much—not on first hearing. I found it full of gestures, full of show, like Liszt at his worst: “Look at this, look at that! And here’s another thing. And another thing . . .” I did not hear a work of music in the gestures and display. I found the piece, for all its busyness and breathlessness, dull.
I can say the same about the Concerto No. 3. It is madly virtuosic. It is blizzard after blizzard of notes. Do those notes stick to the ribs? Are they nutritious? Sitting there, I had a barbed thought: “There are more nutriments in a Ligeti miniature than in this concerto.” I also thought of “sound and fury, signifying”—you know.
But I want to tell you two things. On my way up the aisle, for intermission, I heard a veteran music critic tell his companion, “I liked it a lot.” I respect this critic a great deal. So, opinions vary. And let me quote once more from my review of the Piano Concerto No. 2. I didn’t care for it, no. But, I wrote,
I would like to hear it again. And I can certainly say this for it: It expresses a love of music. It takes pleasure in music. That is not all that common today, strange as it may seem.
I can say the very same for the Piano Concerto No. 3.
Lindberg has certainly been fortunate in his performers over the years—the New York Philharmonic and other top orchestras, yes, but also the soloists. Kari Kriikku played the Clarinet Concerto. (Now there’s a Finnish name!) Frank Peter Zimmermann played the Violin Concerto No. 2. Yefim Bronfman played the Piano Concerto No. 2. And Yuja Wang played the Piano Concerto No. 3 (with Santtu-Matias Rouvali, a Finn, leading the Philharmonic). Wang was dazzling, positively dazzling.
The audience kept applauding and she played an encore, although she appeared reluctant to do so. She played her encore perfunctorily, too. It was a Sibelius piece—the Étude from his Thirteen Pieces, Op. 76. Wang can play it much better (and has). But the Lindberg concerto—she gave it the royal, jaw-dropping treatment.
A week later, Rouvali again conducted the Philharmonic and again there was a new piece, or new enough—it premiered in Berlin two years ago. The piece is for orchestra alone and it is by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, an Icelandic composer (obviously). She was born in 1977 and earned two degrees—an MA and a Ph.D.—at the University of California, San Diego. The new piece we heard was Catamorphosis—about which the composer says this:
The core inspiration behind Catamorphosis is the fragile relationship we have to our planet. The aura of the piece is characterized by the orbiting vortex of emotions and the intensity that comes with the fact that if things do not change it is going to be too late, risking utter destruction—catastrophe.
Many years ago, I coined a phrase: “the greenpiece.” (Get it?) We were hearing a lot of those—pieces of music related, said their composers, to the environment. (Music without words cannot mean much that is specific.) Catamorphosis is a classic greenpiece, right? Right, but it is also a piece of music. And if you are unaware of the composer’s purpose—it can mean whatever you want it to mean, or nothing at all. I will tell you a bit of what I heard, as the Philharmonic played.
The music rises from some primordial soup.
The music rises from some primordial soup. We are in the presence of a big, blobby, breathing thing. There are squigglies in this music. And spooky forest sounds. And sci-fi sounds. And soft percussion, a lot of it. There is anxiety. And a woozy feeling, the feeling of being wobbly on your feet. In other words, Catamorphosis is like many, many other modern pieces.
Yet this is an exceptionally well-made piece. It is unhurried, simple, and centered. It does not show off. It is sonically interesting. It holds the attention. At twenty minutes, it does not seem too long. “Does not seem too long”? A real rave, right? From me—trust me—it sort of is.
In last month’s chronicle, I wrote of Xi Wang, a composer who was born in China (1978) and completed her studies at Cornell. She now teaches at Southern Methodist University. In her music, I said, she blends Chinese traditions with Western ones. I refer to this as “the twain, meeting.” The week after the program with the Thorvaldsdóttir piece, the New York Philharmonic played a piece by Wang Lu. Her trajectory is like Xi Wang’s. Wang Lu was born in China (1982) and completed her studies at Columbia. She now teaches at Brown. And she writes music that has the twain, meeting.
The Philharmonic played a new piece by her—a brief one called Surge. I will quote the composer’s words:
With alarming new environmental and political challenges emerging all the time, there is an overwhelming sense of unforeseen surges of the unknown that permeate our lives. Yet there is also an irresistible sense of collective urgency to build on more complex perspectives that, though sometimes tumultuous, would tolerate bold and unique innovations.
If you can make heads or tails of that, you are a better reader than I. I think composers sometimes think they have to write this way—write words this way—so that people will think they are “relevant.” But a good composer, I say, is always welcome. Debussy said, “Music begins where human speech leaves off.” The story goes that Toscanini was once asked about the first movement of the “Eroica” Symphony. “What does it mean?” The maestro gave an answer for the ages: “It means Allegro con brio in E flat.”
Surge does surge, true. It begins with some bluesy wailing. There are portentous beats. The music is insistent, never resting. It has some rat-a-tat percussion, and a bravura lick on the piano. Listening to the piece, I thought of a famous phrase from American literature: “barbaric yawp.” There is a lot of barbaric yawping going on in Surge.
To me, the piece felt long, even at six minutes. I thought it was held back by monotony. But I might think differently, hearing the piece again or looking at the score. Once the piece was over, Wang Lu ran out from the wings for a bow. Then she quickly ran back. She seemed nervous as she did these things. I found this rather endearing. Wang Lu may be one of those composers who like appearing in public through their music, only.
The conductor for this concert was another Finn, Dalia Stasevska. “Stasevska”? Yes, she was born in Ukraine, when it was part of the Soviet Union. With her family, she moved to Finland when she was a child. She still feels a connection to Ukraine, however. She has raised money to buy supplies for Ukrainians—generators, stoves, clothes, etc. She has even delivered them herself, driving a truck. As for her connection to Finland, her country since childhood, consider this: Her husband is Lauri Porra, a bass-guitar player in a power metal band. He also is a composer—and is the great-grandson of another composer, Sibelius.
Maestra Stasevska and the Philharmonic opened their concert with Surge—and continued with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Their soloist was Lisa Batiashvili, the distinguished player from Georgia. She wore an elegant black gown with a yellow ribbon attached to it. Did the ribbon signify Ukraine? I imagine it did. Ms. Batiashvili is a staunch advocate of freedom and independence for post-Soviet republics.
Thinking about the Tchaikovsky concerto, I thought about a conversation I had with Riccardo Muti, the Italian conductor, last summer. He said that, as a rule, this concerto is played too heavily. There is a lightness about it, a transparency, that reflects the composer’s veneration of Mozart. Works by Tchaikovsky, said Muti, should not be heavy-laden. The light must be let in upon them.
It was as though Batiashvili, Stasevska, and the Philharmonic were listening to him. This was a clear, taut, lithe Tchaikovsky concerto. Also exciting (duly). Batiashvili can be relied on for poise, accuracy, and musicality. She was just this way, with a conductor and orchestra to match.
At the conclusion of the first movement, the audience burst into applause, which was natural. Naturally, a few people shushed the applauders. I think Tchaikovsky would have thought the shushers were nuts. And rude.
Tchaikovsky loved woodwinds, as few composers ever have.
Tchaikovsky loved woodwinds, as few composers ever have. The Philharmonic’s woodwinds repaid his devotion, and they were aided, I think, by the new and improved acoustics of David Geffen Hall. Anthony McGill, the clarinet, was beguiling in the second movement, the Canzonetta. The clarinet is virtually a co-soloist in this movement. The Finale has a folk element—an ethnic flavor—which you always hear. But it was more pronounced than ever in this performance, which was pleasing.
Overall, Batiashvili, Stasevska, and the Philharmonic reminded me how good the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is. One can forget that, over years of hackneying. The audience cheered and cheered, and clapped and clapped, but Batiashvili declined to play an encore. I thought that was a right move, even a classy one: the concerto was enough, and an encore should not be de rigueur.
After intermission, Dalia Stasevska conducted a symphony by her great-grandfather-in-law. It was No. 2. As I think about it, this was the most popular Sibelius symphony when I was young. I think a lot of us owned a recording by George Szell and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. These days, I think, No. 5 is the most popular—maybe along with 1 and 7. No. 3 (one of my favorite symphonies by anybody) is seldom played. Nos. 4 and 6, even more seldom. Where does No. 2 fit in? I’m not sure. Maybe orchestras think that people know it anyway, from recordings, so why should they play it in concert?
From Stasevska and the Philharmonic, the first movement of this symphony was very effective. It had a Classical skeleton, with little room for the blowsy. The music was unusually virile. Jumping to the Finale, I must say it did not pack its punch. I would have asked for more suspense, more emotion, more lushness, more Romanticism, of the aching variety. More more more. Still, it was good to hear the Symphony No. 2—like meeting an old, loved friend.
For as long as I’ve been writing these chronicles, I have commented on, and often complained about, the completeness craze. For example, a pianist thinks he has to play all four Chopin Ballades, at one sitting. Even worse, all four Chopin Scherzos. Well, in Carnegie Hall, Yuja Wang played all four Rachmaninoff piano concertos. Plus that same composer’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. That was a Rachmaninoff marathon, a Rach-stock. And it was marvelous.
Wang did not play the concertos in order. You knew she would end with No. 3, which always blows the roof off a house. If she had ended with No. 4, would people have stayed for it? Would they not have left after No. 3? Wang began with No. 2 and then went 1, 4, 3, with the Rhapsody tucked between 4 and 3. As you would have expected, she sported a new outfit for each piece (as I recall). This stupendous artist still dresses, or undresses, like a Vegas showgirl, and carries it off with panache, and cheek.
The orchestra was the Philadelphia Orchestra, Rachmaninoff’s favorite. The composer recorded all of his concertos, plus the Rhapsody, with the Philadelphians, conducted by either Leopold Stokowski or Eugene Ormandy. The orchestra on this occasion was conducted by its current music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
In the Second Concerto, particularly, he committed some egregious rubato, in my view: awkward pauses, disturbing the musical line. The music was sometimes segmented, rather than whole. But Nézet-Séguin is a wonderful leader. You or I may not like how he leads, here or there, but he leads. And his love of Rachmaninoff’s music shone through. You need to love Rachmaninoff, in order to play, conduct, or sing him well. Otherwise, don’t bother.
Let me say, too, that Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians were full partners in the concertos. Sometimes, the orchestra is kind of an afterthought, merely backing up the pianist. But the orchestra counts in these works, and Rachmaninoff, recall, was no mean symphonist.
About Yuja Wang in Rachmaninoff, I have written for years. I always say, “She is unsurpassed when it comes to limpidity, clarity, articulation, and delicacy. But she lacks a big fat tone—a Rachmaninoff tone. She has a thinner tone, but one she works with. She ‘plays within herself.’ She takes advantage of what tools she has.” All of that is still true. Her opening chords in No. 2 were unusually soft and subtle and modulated. But she also produced proper and deep fortissimos, as in the “Dies irae” section of the Rhapsody.
The fluidity with which she plays is almost impossible.
Honestly, her playing of these works was staggering. The fluidity with which she plays is almost impossible. The piano lacks hammers. The pianist’s arms seem to lack muscles and nerves—anything that would tighten or restrict. They are wet spaghetti, and she can do anything with them.
One thing, I think, she is missing (apart from the “big fat tone”). I don’t necessarily hear electricity from her—as in the opening of the last movement of the D-minor (No. 3). Excitement, yes. But not electricity, as from the wizards. (Pletnev, to name a living one.) No matter, however: Yuja gives you plenty.
After No. 3, she played an encore. I thought it should be Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in D major, as No. 3 ends in that key (D-minor concerto though it is). But she stuck with D minor, playing one of her regular encores: the Melody from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, arranged by Sgambati. It was a jewel.
Before they all left the stage, Maestro Nézet-Séguin got down on his hands and knees, paying tribute to his pianist at her feet. An utterly fitting gesture.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 7, on page 56
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