It was Magnus Lindberg’s week: music long awaited, handsomely produced, agreeably if not ecstatically received. Finnish-born in 1958 – three days older than Esa-Pekka Salonen – Lindberg is already known here for some extraordinary works on disc, music of intense, raw energy, its dusky instrumental colors pierced now and then by lightning bolts. In their conservatory days, Lindberg and Salonen worked together to give their country a musical life that honored its one historic monolith, but looked toward a creative future in which the Sibelius shadow might dwindle somewhat. They founded a new-music ensemble, Toimii, to serve Finland the way the California EAR Unit and the Philharmonic’s New Music Group serve Los Angeles: as a message to new composers with new ideas that their music has a chance of being heard. Largely through their efforts, Finland has attained a musical stature beyond anything in its Sibelian past.
Even though both young men forsook their native land to chart broader horizons – in Paris, with the violently innovative group gathered at the feet of Pierre Boulez – neither completely turned his back on his musical heritage. Lindberg lives once again in Helsinki, and Salonen conducts the music of Sibelius. (On a recent quick trip to New York – confronted with the grim specter of a Sibelius program at Carnegie Hall as the only accessible entertainment – I heard Salonen and a visiting student orchestra from the Sibelius Academy in a hurtle through the Fifth Symphony that left me exhilarated for hours. You never can tell.)
Until last week, Lindberg’s best-known work was Kraft, a blazing, high-voltage half-hour recorded (on Finlandia) in 1985 by the Toimii players and a full orchestra under Salonen’s direction. At Tuesday’s “Green Umbrella” concert, three remarkable Lindberg works got their first local hearings: Related Rocks, violent, dark-hued music for percussion and synthesizer; the fluid, lyrical Duo Concertante for small orchestra with clarinet and cello solos; and another knockout piece, Arena II. All have been recorded; a large Lindberg discography already exists on Finland’s two labels, Ondine and Finlandia, which are kind to native composers to an extent that companies in other countries could well take to heart. On Thursday, Salonen and the Philharmonic played music commissioned from Lindberg by enlightened Los Angeles money, the 22-minute Fresco.
It’s the sheer energy of Lindberg’s music that hits you first off: dense clouds of sound, melodic lines circling one another in constant whirlwind motion, driven onward by a remarkable variety of textures. The 1990 Duo Concertante – its solo lines gorgeously played at the “Green Umbrella” by Lorin Levee and Gloria Lum – is the most immediately likable of the four Lindberg works heard here last week. I love its sense of hovering in clear, cold air: long, wispy melodic lines that curl around one another and push forward, its harmonic language unrelated to the classical “rules” yet logical in itself. Fresco, the Philharmonic piece, seemed on first hearing imbued with the same fierceness, but with perhaps less of the clean-burning energy of the works for smaller ensemble. In the Chandler Pavilion’s grossly imperfect acoustics, some of the great sound-swirls were merely muddy – merely (dare I say it?) Sibelian. You can hear the work on the Philharmonic’s new broadcast series on KKGO-FM the week of May 18; that will be the time for judgment. I know already that Lindberg is a major composer and that his visit here was a major event.
I am not fond of Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade under good circumstances; hearing it after Lindberg’s Fresco did it even greater cruelty. The work is cloaked in self-esteem: “Look, Ma, I’m reading Plato.” Even without the Platonic titles, the music is thin and dreary, more accessible than the Lindberg (if sweet harmonies and pretty tunes are your idea of access) but utterly devoid of anything that guides the listener in a logical trajectory from A to B, as Lindberg’s music constantly does. Concertmaster Martin Chalifour’s performance was all the notes demanded and perhaps a bit more. He played it without a score, which suggests that he values it enough to memorize it; I wish I knew why. At the end came the Schumann “Rhenish” Symphony in an okay unfolding, another tentative step in Salonen’s current incursion into the Romantic repertory. (Next week: the Mendelssohn “Italian.”) Nice tunes in thick, ungainly sound: The Schumann symphonies add up to one of music’s most honorable failures. Perhaps – to reverse one of my recent obsessions – someone ought to rescore them for string quartet.
Nothing prompted my recent trip east except a plane ticket about to expire. In Boston there was Brahms; in New York, Sibelius: not my idea of meaningful travel. But the sound of Boston’s Symphony Hall – not the orchestra itself in its present shaggy state, and certainly not the soggy performances under Andre Previn – remains one of the world’s marvels. I sat in the second balcony, where, in times less complex, I had served as usher, and the years fell away.
The splendid if still somewhat raw Finnish orchestra had come over to serve as guinea pig for one of Carnegie Hall’s annual conductors’ workshops. Salonen was among the advisers, along with Finland’s legendary Jorma Panula (who taught but, alas, did not conduct); Grant Gershon, recently of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was one of the participants. Again, however, the sound of the hall, after the recent rebuilding to correct a boo-boo from the previous overhaul, was what I really wanted to hear: lustrous, warm, wonderfully clear even in the muddiest passages in the music at hand that night.
At the Metropolitan Opera there was Edo de Waart’s supple conducting of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, on the marvelous David Hockney sets but with only a so-so cast, except for Kurt Moll’s majestic Sarastro. I went mostly to check out the house’s new translation device: a small screen set into each seatback, enabling you to watch both the opera and its translation without the neck isometrics needed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The system worked perfectly well: a fairly modest light level to ward off glare to adjoining seats, and an on-off switch. But when the Queen of the Night entered in her chariot suspended over the stage, the woman in front of me leaned back to see her and her hair completely covered my screen. My advice to future Met-goers: Wait until they do The Barber of Seville, or bring scissors.