15 May 2011

Lindberg/Koh/Karttunen play Lindberg/Villa-Lobos/Schulhoff

I’ve had the new four-CD set of Magnus Lindberg’s orchestral music in heavy rotation recently, not only because I was going to hear Lindberg today but because I’ve just been loving his sound – when you hear Lindberg’s music, you know you’ve heard something.

I’d been looking forward to this concert ever since San Francisco Performances added it to their schedule. There's something particularly exciting and enticing about hearing composers play their own music. Lindberg on piano, joined by Jennifer Koh on violin and Anssi Karttunen on cello, playing in the San Francisco Conservatory’s small and comfortable concert hall, underneath a fabulously neoclassical ceiling: how could it get better than that?

Yeah, I’m just going to rave like that the rest of this entry. That may have been the fastest two hours I’ve spent this year – the time just flew by, and as I left I wished I had a recording so I could listen to it all over again, especially all the first-time music, of which there was plenty, starting with the first piece, Lindberg’s Sonatas for Violin and Piano, which is muscular but lyrical in the Lindberg way.

When Koh and Lindberg finished that piece, Karttunen came out to play the Mystery Variations on Giuseppe Colombi’s Chiacona, for solo cello. He explained that Colombi’s chaconne was one of the earliest pieces for solo cello, and for his birthday last September (he didn’t specify which birthday it was, but said it was one “some people found significant”) 32 of his composer friends (I’m pretty sure I have the number right – it was definitely over 30) had written variations inspired by the Colombi. He played the original piece and then five of the variations, by Edmund Campion (Birthday Greeting), Martin Matalon (Para Anssi), Roger Reynolds (Colombi Daydream), Pablo Ortiz (Paloma), and Magnus Lindberg (Duello). All of those were US premieres except for the Lindberg, which was a West Coast premiere. The trio had performed a similar concert in New York recently and I guess Karttunen chose a mostly different set of variations. The Campion and Matalon used eerie and almost ghostly sounds. The others were more flowing. I'd love to hear all the variations in one performance.

Before the Mystery Variations there was an entertaining little interlude: Karttunen announced that, just five minute before, a major event had occurred for himself and his fellow Finns. My first thought (“is there a war? a natural disaster? or maybe the Eurovision Song Contest?”) fortunately turned out to be incorrect: the Finnish team had just won an international hockey title. So Lindberg rushed out and the two Finns gave us a piano and cello version of what must have been the Finnish national anthem, because a large number of audience members stood. By the time I figured out that’s what was going on I thought it would be disruptive for me to stand, so – I didn’t. No disrespect was intended to either Finland or hockey. I give all Finns permission to sit out a performance of their choice of The Star-Spangled Banner.

After the Mystery Variations Koh came back out and joined Karttunen for Schulhoff’s tangy Duo for Violin and Cello. Schulhoff seems to be having a moment, since I had heard another piece by him recently, when SF Performances presented the Pavel Haas Quartet. The program book had notes on the Schulhoff and also on the first piece in the second half, 2 Choros for violin and cello by Villa-Lobos, but there was no particular reason given for choosing those pieces, except the implied one that the artists wanted to play them. Koh did explain that the Villa-Lobos was not, as the program had it, Choros No 2, but rather a two-part piece for violin and cello that the composer, “for some reason,” thought would be the perfect encore after his massive and varied Choros pieces.

After that Lindberg rejoined them for the final piece, his Trio for violin, cello, and piano. This was actually the first time all three were on stage at the same time. Lindberg was all in black, Koh was in a long sleeveless red dress, and Karttunen split the difference by wearing black pants and a red Chinese-style shirt. The trio was billed as a west coast premiere but was actually a world premiere, since Lindberg had revised the third movement after Tuesday’s performance in New York – in fact, he told us that what we were about to hear was “wet ink” since he had just finished the revision that morning. (I don’t know how heavily it was revised; I didn’t sense any particular uncertainty on the part of any of the players, but then I'm sure they could handle just about anything.)

He then went on to tell us that he had been occupied lately with big orchestral pieces, but there was also a separate current of chamber pieces, particularly for ones with piano. He felt adding a piano changed the available dramatic texture of chamber music. Such music had not been written much, he went on, in the second half of the twentieth century, but if you went back a hundred or a hundred and fifty years, it was more common, and he tried not to think of the “scary beauty” of piano and chamber ensemble pieces by Brahms and Schumann.

Lindberg is not only a fantastic performer, but he can actually talk about his own music in an interesting and illuminating way. He described his trio by saying that the first movement was like a whirlpool, with much going on and being pulled into it (the movement ends with swoony lyricism from the strings alongside the more strongly rhythmic piano – that part is my description, not his); the second was trying to be a slow movement, but kept breaking away; and the third was more toccata-like, more direct, without the meandering of the other two movements (though all three used the same materials). Then they played it, and that’s exactly how it sounded. Fantastic. Great afternoon.