The greatest curse that can afflict any composer is an obsession with novelty so extreme as to overshadow any of the most commonsense reflections on the legacy of the past. Here in my home town of San Francisco, audiences last week had to suffer through the shallow-mindedness of such myopia when Third Coast Percussion gave a recital performance of Glenn Kotche’s 2014 “Wild Sound,” which turned out to be little more than 45 minutes of one reinvented wheel after another. Composers who are not afraid to stand on the shoulders of giants, rather than bragging about having bigger feet, seem to be a rare, if not vanishing, breed. Audiences, in turn, often have to face the prospect of “new music” that has more to do with engineering design than with the possibility that “making music” involves a legacy that does not deserve to be discarded like an out-of-date newspaper.
Fortunately, there is at least one composer who not only has decided not to shut his eyes to history but also positively revels in the full panorama that his wide-eyed vision affords. That composer is the Finn Magnus Lindberg, who never seems to have trouble finding his own voice but never seems to worry when he finds it ensconced within his own past listening experiences. Lindberg’s capacity for revelry may be encountered at its most overt in his second piano concerto, completed in 2012 during his tenure as Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic. First performed by pianist Yefim Bronfman with Alan Gilbert conducting, the concert recording was subsequently released on CD by Dacapo Records.
The attentive listener quickly realized that Lindberg had decided to take Maurice Ravel’s second piano concerto (the one composed for the left hand alone) as a point of departure for his second piano concerto. Those who know the Ravel had no trouble identifying the many “landmarks” that Lindberg had written into his score, almost as if he had decided that being a tour guide was his true calling in life. Indeed, Lindberg’s timing was impeccable. Around the time that the listener would realize that a particular theme had not yet made an appearance, Lindberg would pop it into view.
The latest recording of Lindberg’s music, released last month by Ondine, features that composer’s second cello concerto, which offers up a similarly frolicsome relationship to history. In this case, however, the history is Lindberg’s own. This concerto was written on a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2013; but Lindberg found that he had less time to work on the piece than he had anticipated. He thus decided to use his own music as a point of departure for his new concerto, building on a duo for cello and piano entitled “Santa Fe Project,” which he wrote in 2006 to play with cellist Anssi Karttunen. That much is explained in the booklet for this new recording. What is omitted, however, is that “Santa Fe Project,” in turn, grew out of an earlier duo for cello and piano (same performers) entitled “Dos Coyotes;” and “Dos Coyotes” was based on an earlier piece for chamber orchestra entitled “Coyote Blues.” (Perhaps some day a recording company will decide to offer the entire lineage on a single CD.)
Needless to say, the second cello concerto still emerges with its own unique voice. Karttunen is the soloist (as he had been when the work was premiered in Los Angeles with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting). The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Hannu Lintu, and the listening experience is nothing less than a great treat.
On the recording the concerto is flanked by two relatively substantive single-movement orchestral works. There first of these is another piece that Lindberg composed during his tenure with the New York Philharmonic. The commission for “Al largo” was shared with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Casa da Música Porto (Portugal); and the Philharmonic performance, conducted by Gilbert, was released on that same Dacapo recording that featured the second piano concerto. “Al largo” was completed in 2010; and it, too, shows signs of Ravel’s influence. Indeed, the instrumentation was inspired by Ravel’s orchestration for the ballet version of “Ma mere l’Oye” (Mother Goose), whose prelude makes a fleeting appearance. The concluding selection “Era,” composed in 2012, turns to Jean Sibelius and that composer’s enigmatic fourth symphony for a point of departure. The overall tone is significantly different but no less compelling.
This is definitely an album that will leave one with no end of positive thoughts about listening to new music.