Christian Lindberg conducting in Stockholm wearing that aubergine shirt
It’s not every night you get to see a a man in impossibly tight trousers and an aubergine silk shirt conducting whilst playing a trombone, adding emphasis to his musical directions with sinuous ballet moves across the stage. But that was what we got at the Epstein Theatre on Tuesday during a hugely exciting evening of contemporary music haunted by the shades of Zappa, Brecht and Weill.
The occasion was a concert by Ensemble 10/10, the brilliant and award-winning contemporary music group of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Packaged under the title Swedish Smorgasbord was an entertaining and stimulating collection of pieces mostly, though not exclusively, having Swedish connections. The Swedish flavour was personified in the lively form of Christian Lindberg, renowned conductor and trombonist and Artist in Residence with the Phil this season, who directed the Ensemble with an infectious energy and enthusiasm.
The concert opened with Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments composed in 1922-1923 for an unusual combination of wind instruments: flute, clarinet, two bassoons, trumpet in C, trumpet in A, tenor trombone and bass trombone.
The Octuor began with a dream in which I saw myself in a small room surrounded by a small group of instrumentalists playing some very attractive music. I did not recognize the music, though I strained to hear it, and I could not recall any feature of it the next day, but I do remember my curiosity – in the dream – to know how many the musicians were. I remember too that after I had counted them to the number eight, I looked again and saw that they were playing bassoons, trombones, trumpets, a flute and a clarinet. I awoke from this little concert in a state of great delight and anticipation and the next morning began to compose.
That was how Stravinsky wrote about the Octet’s conception, in words that echo Paul McCartney’s account of how the melody for ‘Yesterday’ came to him:
I was living in a little flat at the top of a house and i had a piano by my bed. I woke up one morning with a tune in my head and I thought, ‘Hey, I don’t know this tune – or do I?’ It was like a jazz melody. My dad used to know a lot of old jazz tunes; I thought maybe I’d just remembered it from the past. I went to the piano and found the chords to it, made sure I remembered it and then hawked it round to all my friends, asking what it was: ‘Do you know this? It’s a good little tune, but I couldn’t have written it because I dreamt it.’
At this stage of his career Stravinsky was abandoning his neo-primitivist Russian phase style which had produced works such as The Rite of Spring and The Firebird for works in a neo-classical style that combined formal, structured composition with modern sounding harmonies, rhythms and counterpoint.
The result was a woodwind divertissement piece that consists of a theme and five variations that are exciting for the listener, whilst reputedly offering an exercising challenge for the performers. Aaron Copland attended the premiere in Paris and later wrote:
I can attest to the general feeling of mystification that followed the initial hearing. Here was Stravinsky now suddenly, without any seeming explanation, making an about-face and presenting a piece to the public that bore no conceivable resemblance to the individual style with which he had hitherto been identified. No-one could possibly have foreseen that the Octet was destined to influence composers all over the world.
Copland later recognised that the piece was destined to influence composers everywhere by openly reverting to the forms and textures of the pre-Romantic era. The Times reviewer declared that ‘without claiming for it, after the manner of the composer’s more violent admirers, that it is a seventh Brandenburg Concerto’, it displayed ‘a complete mastery of the medium’. Though ‘moments of unaccustomed discords’ prevented him judging it beautiful, the critic concluded that ‘there is so much to admire in the work that it cannot be dismissed as a piece of buffoonery’.
The second piece was a world première by the young composer Patrick John Jones who began his musical career aged seven playing the trumpet, inspired by the Jurassic Park soundtrack. Unfurl was described in the programme notes (as usual at a 10/10 concert, thorough and tremendous value) as ‘a contagious clarinet flourish that spreads through the ensemble’.
The first half culminated in a piece by Swedish composer Jan Sandstrom, and introduced me both to a composer who was new to me, and a painter of whom I had never heard. Christian Lindberg gave a short introduction before the work – Wahlberg Variations for trombone and ensemble – to explain its background. Sandstrom is, he said, a close friend, and the work derives from a stressful period in his friend’s life, living in Paris in the early 1980s and being suffocated by the over-intellectual atmosphere of IRCAM the French institute for avant garde electro-acoustical art music, the institute to which he was attached. Fortunately, Sandstrom fell in with a colony of Swedes living there at the time, one of whom was the artist Ulf Wahlberg, who (in the words of the programme notes) ‘led him to several weeks of euphoric and happy discovery in the Marais and surrounding districts … to undreamed of adventures amid the banality of life’.
Ulf Wahlberg, ‘Landscape, Tijuana, Mexico’
What emerged from this experience some ten years later was Wahlberg Variations, an irreverent tone poem in which each movement is inspired by a certain Wahlberg’s paintings or an experience instigated by him during those bohemian days in Paris. Ulf Wahlberg is most renowned for his paintings of wrecked American cars from the 1960s, and in the first variation, ‘Car Wrecks’, we hear the artist checking the engines, starters, horns and car radios in these beautiful wrecks. ‘La Pallette’ evokes ‘a watering place where the Swedish colony was accustomed to spend many an evening. With its sly humour and debunking of artistic pomposity, this movement brought to mind Frank Zappa because in it we ‘hear our hero experiencing great difficulty in trying to teach a group of musicians from Ensemble Intercontemporain, Pierre Boulez’ world-famous contemporary music ensemble (who were based at IRCAM), to play the jazz tune ‘On A Slow Boat to China”.
This eccentric music lesson does not progress without certain complications, and ‘to create a new pedagogical perspective’ the artist takes his c0mpanions with him to the Paris Zoo. In the next variation, ‘The Gibbon Ape At Vincennes’, an ape dances a proud tango, following an indescribable pattern of movements. ‘The zoo in the woods of Vincennes was a popular haunt of artists in their thirst for experience’.
‘Les Chimeres de Notre Dame’ references the terrifying gargoyles of the cathedral. The music counterpoints their hoarse cries with the prayers of the nuns of St Gervais. There is more than one portrait of the chimeras in Ulf Wahlberg’s work, and in the final piece Sandstrom makes reference to another feature of Wahlberg paintings in which he often adds a pointed nose to the figures he portrays – ‘to make people take notice of them’. Perhaps this is why the piece ended with Lindberg and members of the Ensemble barking like a penguins.
One of composer Sandstrom’s most-performed works is the Motorbike Concerto and, like the machine to which the piece is dedicated, Sandström is constantly exploring whatever aspect of life and music takes his fancy: ‘Every morning when I wake up, I want to be surprised by whatever I might think up today!’
Nothing could have been more surprising during the performance of Sandstrom’s piece, than the sight of Christian Lindberg energetically conducting whilst also playing the trombone.
Ulf Wahlberg, ‘Classic Chevy in the Granberg Dals Foundry’
After the interval we were treated to another world premiere – Eyeliner Suite, an arrangement by Jarle Storlokken of pieces by Lars Hollmer, a Swedish composer, keyboardist and accordianist who died in 2008. In the late sixties and early seventies Hollmer played with a progressive rock band, and later collaborated with experimental guitarist Fred Frith and several Japanese jazz musicians. Eyeliner ranged between lyrical, folk-based melodies and complex passages with a rock feel.
Christian Lindberg in Poland
The final piece was conductor Christian Lindberg’s tour de force: the second part of his own on-going trilogy, Kundraan’s Karma for narrating trombonist and ensemble. This time, Lindberg not only conducted and played trombone, he also narrated the piece which had echoes of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale in its Faustian story of the disillusioned conductor Kundraan who is constantly tempted by Lucifer. There seemed to be something deeply-felt in Lindberg’s satire of the international music business. As the piece begins, Kundraan is perilously balanced on a narrow bridge above hell. He falls into the clutches of Lucifer, who bribes critics and journalists into boosting his reputation. As a result he gets a prestigious gig in New York, conducting Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. But the unimpeachable critic Messerschmidt demolishes Kundraan’s lamentable performance. At the end Kundraan is back on the narrow bridge, but someone – an angel, maybe? – hovers close by. Is he saved? We’ll have to wait for part three.
The whole thing was witty and thoroughly enjoyable: both for the music, and the dynamic multi-tasking of the irrepressible Lindberg, who was called back by an enthusiastic audience for four ovations.
Remarkably, this concert was reviewed in the Guardian, though I think the review fails to communicate the excitement of the music and the atmosphere of an event at which the audience gave every sign of appreciating the energy and musicianship displayed on stage, calling back Lindberg and the 10/10 Ensemble members for repeated ovations. This is music that I think you must experience live in order to enjoy it to the full.
Here’s a YouTube video of Christian Lindberg performing trumpet concertos by Mozart and others, with the Swedish Radio Orchestra:
And another, very much in the spirit of Tuesday night, in which Christian Lindberg and pianist Roland Pöntinen perform a czárdás, a traditional Hungarian folk dance: