Music of Today:
Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Graffiti [Co-commission by Southbank Centre, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra: UK premiere]
Reviewed by: Colin Clarke
Reviewed: 1 October, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Esa-Pekka Salonen’s programming, his intrinsic musical intelligence and his ‘inside view’ of music as a composer/conductor is a dynamite combination. Having Salonen head the Philharmonia Orchestra is something to celebrate.
Salonen has a close relationship with Magnus Lindberg (born 1958). Their paths crossed in Helsinki (youth department of the Sibelius Academy) and soon they, together with Kaija Saariaho and Jouni Kaipainen, were members of the avant-garde collective that called itself Korvat auki! (Ears open!). Lindberg’s music is always stimulating, uncompromising and multi-faceted. That the early-evening “Music of Today” concert contextualised Graffiti by providing performances of two very different pieces was a massive (if not massively attended) bonus.
Lindberg is not usually associated with music for voice, despite the fact that in early life he worked as a rehearsal pianist for Finnish National Opera. There appear to be only two vocal works prior to Graffiti: an untitled piece (voice and piano) of 1978 and “Songs from North and South” for children’s choir of 1993. For this co-commission, Lindberg writes for choir and orchestra. At the Helsinki world premiere, there was 24 voices; in London that number was doubled.
Ironically (you’ll find out why later) Ian Scott was credited as ‘lighting designer’. The members of the chorus had lights on their individual copies of the music, and the orchestra had music-stand lights. Warm shapes had been projected against the back wall at the beginning of the concert. None of which made too much difference to the music.
Interestingly, Lindberg takes Latin as his chosen language to set. A homage to Stravinsky, certainly (the musical language of “Les noces” is yet another Stravinskian influence). The texts themselves come from a collection of Latin inscriptions entitled “Corpus inscriptionum” and, specifically, the graffiti found at Pompeii (a city destroyed in AD79). Lindberg selected some sixty texts, some of which are rather graphic; strangely, the composer states that he omitted some because the piece was probably going to be heard by is 81-year-old grandmother. The mind boggles as to what he omitted: texts that made it through include “Hic ego bis futui” (I fucked here twice), “Nymphea fututa, Anomus fututa” (Nymphea and Anomus are names; work out the rest) and “Myrtis bene fellas” (Myrtis, you give good head). Some texts are comedically random (“Hallex optima”: The best fish sauce).
The chorus does not enter until nearly five minutes into the piece. Lindberg’s use of harmony is very powerful, whether it is altered tonal constructs or out-and-out modernism. Salonen seemed to have complete measure of the score – definition in the murky opening pages meant bassoon and contrabassoon lines were marvellously audible. The bassoon family has an important part to play; the sudden arrival of a bassoon melody was poignant indeed. There was play here, too, a sort of intermittent playful jubilation, and Lindberg enjoys wilfully setting texts in contradictory fashion: a simple list of market days and locations is one of the darker moments of this terrific piece.
“Music of Today” presented two contrasting pieces. Coyote Blues of 1993 for chamber ensemble is marked by glistening, oscillatory textures contrasted with dense scoring. The active, seething textures gives way to moments of relative light (and some distinctly Stravinskian textures in the work’s later stages). Coyote Blues was originally intended for male voice and chamber ensemble, but the voice was abandoned. Engine (1996) included computer generation in its formation (hence the ‘engine’), via the Patchwork programme developed at IRCAM. Although both of these pieces are complex, the resultant sounds are recognisably different. Here the predominant texture could possibly best be described as ‘grainy’. A sudden arrival at a unison feels shocking in this context. Both performances, by members of the Philharmonia Orchestra under Diego Masson were of the very highest standard.
The main evening’s concert began with an impressive Janáček Sinfonietta. The differences between this and Sir Charles Mackerras’s performance with the same orchestra in the same hall in June 2007 were marked, with Salonen being the more analytical in terms of revealing the scoring’s edge. The extra brass was stretched out behind the orchestra, a great visual effect but these musicians lacked punch and accuracy. Unsurprisingly, Salonen brought out the manic in the ‘Andante’, delighting in the abrupt juxtapositions, but majesty was missing, but compensation came from the barrage of insights, not least in the unreal quality of the fourth movement and in the disturbing, nightmarish finale, the music prior to the reappearance of the fanfares can so often seem to lose its own way, but not here. It was simply rather frightening.
During The Firebird, the Royal Festival Hall was plunged into darkness; the lights began to flicker worryingly towards the end of the ballet, before going off completely, leaving the Philharmonia Orchestra for a worrying few seconds (it felt like minutes) playing completely and literally blind, utterly professional. The performance as a whole was magnificent. Salonen’s fast initial tempo was surprising but the music remained shadowy. Throughout, the imagination of Stravinsky’s scoring was highlighted. James Clark’s violin solos added moments of sophistication and the gossamer strings in ‘Round Dance’ provided held-breath beauty. Trumpeters located around the hall itself gave a feel of space; and how good it was to hear Stravinsky’s preparation for ‘Infernal Dance’! The finale blazed wonderfully, an exciting and mesmerising musical experience overall.
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