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Thank You. Seriously. Thank You.

May 15, 2011

San Francisco Performances

Yes! San Francisco Performances has brought us Magnus Lindberg. Thank you, oh so much. Seriously.

Modern classical music has become, to a certain extent, regionalized. Audiences of new music tend to be more aware of new music in their own area and less aware of new music globally, so it wouldn’t surprise me if you don’t know much about the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, but you should. Again, seriously.

On Sunday, Magnus Lindberg played in the Hume Hall at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with violinist Jennifer Koh and cellist Anssi Karttunen. Their program explored new music, but in such a way that it felt unified with the past. Everything felt as if it were a part of a continuum that hearkens back through Stravinsky and Bartók to Brahms, Schumann, and Beethoven.

Koh and Lindberg opened the recital with his own Sonatas for Violin and Piano. The piece amounted to a veritable tour de force of technical bravado and musical eloquence. The two played lines that overlapped and wove together, glissandos that began on the violin and ended on the piano. The high point of the piece was a massive, iconic glissando on the keys, during which the right hand went up and the left hand went down, expanding the piece’s range and popping up into some glorious textures.

Next on the program was Anssi Karttunen playing a set of what he calls “Mystery Variations.” For his birthday in September, he received 32 variations on one of the earliest pieces for solo cello, Giuseppe Colombi’s Chiacona. Each of the variations written for Karttunen came from a different composer friend of his, covering what I imagine is the full gamut of cello technique. Karttunen played the theme and four variations for us, from Edmund Campion, Pablo Ortiz, Roger Reynolds, and Magnus Lindberg. The Campion, with its haunting beauty, stood out as a testament to quiet musicality, and during Ortiz’ addition to the evening I heard an audience member whisper “That’s not music, that’s heaven.”

Another work was by Erwin Schulhoff, a rarely heard composer. Born in Prague, of Jewish-German origin, he launched a career that was cut short by the rise of Nazism. He wrote eight symphonies, two of which were unfinished, plus numerous chamber works, including his riveting and intelligent Duo for Violin and Cello, which was offered on this program. Each of the movements embodied dance and beauty and the early 20th century. It sounded to me like a cross between Ravel and Bartók, with its powerful, pervasive dance rhythms, sometimes off-kilter, and with lush, jazz-infused harmonies. Koh and Karttunen seemed to be having a marvelous time bouncing ideas back and forth between them on stage.

After intermission, those two soloists returned to the stage with a rendition of Villa-Lobos’ Choros bis. A flashy piece that showcases the players’ passions as much as their skills, it was given an appropriate performance. Written as an encore for Villa-Lobos’ oddly orchestrated set of Choros pieces, it embraces the “anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better” mind-set, so the musicians dueled on stage.

At the Program’s Heart

Finally we heard the reason for coming, and the core of the concert: Magnus Lindberg’s new Piano Trio. Scarcely a week ago, the piece was premiered in New York (Lindberg is composer in residence with the New York Philharmonic), but since then it has undergone some major transformations, particularly in the third movement. The first movement introduced swirling motives, and also incorporated the use of the glissando continued from one instrument into another. Each sound was constructed in a unified way. Perhaps the violin would activate a pitch, and slowly slide down, which the piano would then pick up and turn into a descending rolling chord, only to have the cello play the piano’s last note and push it up, thus resolving the tension and activating the next sound. This fluidity built and became gradually tumultuous, eventually burbling over the top.

Lindberg referred to his second movement as a “failed slow movement.” True, the tempo is slow, but the burbling of the first movement continues to seep through, into the texture, letting each of the instruments explore incredibly active lines. Each sonority resonated with beautiful intensity. The third and final movement continued the motivic material from the other two. Returning to a faster tempo, and feeling “comfortable” with the showier aspects of the instruments, the material built to an intensely riveting climax, showing extreme virtuosity combined with the most deft application of the motivic material and elegant orchestrations. As the piece ended, the audience rose to their feet. Here is a composer who truly seems to be associated with the past, and yet is not ruled by it. His music is not dominated by old harmonies or orchestration choices, nor is it overpowered by an inapt use of old structures. Rather, he has learned from both past and present, and brings them together in musical unity. This was a powerful piece indeed, one that will surely become a standard with piano trios everywhere, and soon.

Matthew Cmiel holds degrees in composition from The Curtis Institute of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He has received numerous commissions, including one from Maestra Marin Alsop for the Cabrillo New Music Festival. Founder of the ensemble Formerly Known as Classical and The Hot Air Music Festival, he is currently the Director of Orchestras at San Francisco's Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, and co-director of the ensemble After Everything.