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Celebration for a Finn de Siècle

New York
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Juilliard School
10/11/2010 -  
Lindberg’s Musical World:
Igor Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Iannis Xenakis: Okho
Magnus Lindberg: Joy (for large ensemble)

Samuel Budish, David Stevens, Michael Truesdell (Percussion)
Axiom, Jeffrey Milarsky (Conductor)

Axiom (© Coco T. Doggé)

Magnus Lindberg, a cynosure of this century’s astonishing Finnish Renaissance, was the literal cause célèbre for Axiom‘s concert last night. Not the controversy of the idiom (Mr. Lindberg is incontrovertibly a major composer) but because he can be mightily celebrated by any orchestra.

Axiom, formed only five years ago for Juilliard students and graduates, is part of the school’s roster of ensembles specializing in music that probably couldn’t be handled by more sedate well-established groups. So what they did for the likes of Stravinsky, Xenakis and, yes, Magnus Lindberg, is a celebration indeed.

Until becoming composer-in-residence for the New York Philharmonic last year, Mr. Lindberg was little known in New York Now it is evident that he leaps to orchestral writing the way Paganini leaped to fiddle-writing. Mr. Lindberg probably does write chamber music, but from his work Joy last night, one imagines that he not only composes, but sleeps, dreams, eats and is driven by massive orchestral forces.

Why, though, was the concert entitled ”Lindberg’s Musical World”?. This poor scrivener doesn’t have the chuzpah to analyze Mr. Lindberg’s influences by Stravinsky and Xenakis. Let is only be said that the Russian’s austere religiosi,ty and the playful complexity of the Greco-Frenchman could well have been landmarks in Mr. Lindberg’s curriculum.

The word “austerity”, though, was not part of Jeffrey Milarsky’s conducting for Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Visually, even, following the woodwinds on stage, the Axiom brasses glittered into the auditorium. With the first downbeat, Mr. Milarsky showed that, no matter what the lecturers say, this was a bright, almost balletic Stravinsky work.

The accent was less on the dark hues of the ensemble than the surprising leaps of Stravinsky’s imagination. The mock-pop phrases jumped out, the Pulcinella-style rhythmic jolts were jolting And while the final chorale is usually the signal for audiences to know that it’s over, here the chorale was a bright and sensible way to end. Instead of the dour neo-Classical composer, Mr. Milarsky gave us an inspired and even emotional masterwork.

Following this was a tour de force for three barefoot percussionists playing three djembés, goblet-shaped bongo-style drums from Mali. Mr. Xenakis’s stochastic aesthetics and Ken LaFave’s detailed program notes are invaluable. For neophyte listeners, the 15 minutes of sounds and rhythms were mesmeric. First, the rhythmic counterpoint of the three, the variations within variations, both opposing and together. Next, sounds which probably were never heard in Mali: timpani-style glissandi, sounds with both sticks and hands, which painted a whole continent of music in three instruments.

M. Lindberg, Snap-bassist D. Bailett (© Herring Rollmop)

Happily, we had no intermission, no forced hiatus for the longest work, Mr. Lindberg’s happily-named Joy, written several decades ago. The 23 players, plus electronic synthesizer, made 30 minutes of the most massive sounds. Was that “joy”? Oh yes. Mr. Lindberg made these complex massive chords, move from side to side, slip into themselves. Like huge boulders, they coalesce, roll, congregate and form new physical presences.

Composer Xenakis was trained as an engineer, but his music is, at the most, theoretical engineering. Mr Lindberg is the real engineer of Gargantuan projects.

Coincidentally, at a pre-concert dinner, I had been speaking with two Egyptologists about the building of the Giza Pyramids. Mr. Lindberg’s vision was musical, but my vision of the music was of a hundred-thousand slaves working day and night with great boulders and bricks going higher and higher.

Whatever the “joy”, Mr. Lindberg did have his fun. I caught one homage to the eponymous Firebird, and another to the priests of Sacre. The thunder of Sibelius was always under the orchestra. At times, the composer teased us by going relatively quiet, only to come back with more rolling thunder.

The colors abounded from sudden snaps on the double-bass, celesta-piano rhythms, and great brass. But the end result was one large harmonic mural, played by great technicians and exhibited with the enthusiasm, energy and–yes!–joy, real joy.

Harry Rolnick



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