10/10’s Swedish Smorgasbord: tight trousers, trombones and car wrecks

10/10’s Swedish Smorgasbord: tight trousers, trombones and car wrecks

Christian Lindberg conducting Stockholm Early Music Festival 2012

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

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 - 001

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

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:

Shostakovich’s 13th at the Phil: a monument for Babi Yar

Shostakovich’s 13th at the Phil: a monument for Babi Yar
Shostakovich and Yevtushenko
Shostakovich and Yevtushenko

On Thursday evening we went to the Phil to see Petrenko conduct an all-Russian programme that culminated with Shostakovich’s monumental and impassioned Thirteenth Symphony, a choral work – effectively a song-cycle – consisting of settings of five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and opening with his poem written in protest at Soviet policy on the Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar in 1941.

When I was at university in the sixties, Yevtushenko was one of the poets of the moment, to be read alongside other student radical favourites of the time like Christopher Logue, Adrian Mitchell and Alan Ginsberg.  I remember I had a dual-language edition of Yevtushenko’s poems – the Russian on one side and the English translation on the facing page.

Einsatzkommando victims before execution at Babi Yar outside Kiev, September 1941
Einsatzkommando victims before execution at Babi Yar outside Kiev, September 1941

Yevtushenko wrote ‘Babi Yar’ in 1961 in part to protest the Soviet Union’s refusal to identify Babi Yar, a ravine in the suburbs of Kiev, as a site of the mass murder of 33,000 Jews on September 29–30, 1941.  After the war, Soviet policy reflected both Stalin’s instinctive suspicion of Jews, and a rhetoric both of Russian nationalism and communist internationalism: the anti-fascist war had been fought bravely by Russians defending a communist state founded on the belief that all political divisions reflected class struggle.  The result was, as Tony Judt wrote in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945:

For various reasons it had always suited the Soviet purpose to downplay the distinctively racist character of Nazi brutality: the massacre of Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar was officially commemorated as the ‘murder of peaceful Soviet citizens’, just as the post-war memorial at Auschwitz confined itself to general references to ‘victims of fascism’. racism had no part in the Marxist lexicon; dead Jews were posthumously assimilated into the same local communities that had so disliked them when they were alive.

Reading Yevtushenko’s poem again for the first time in decades, I am less impressed than I was fifty-odd years ago.  Although I recognise the significance of the poet’s somewhat coded attack on Soviet policy, the poetry – however laudable its intent – now seems rather clunky, and the final invocation of the Internationale and the ‘true Russian’ grates.

Babi Yar

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
a Jew.

Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified, on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
The Philistine

is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.

Beset on every side.
spat on,
Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace

stick their parasols into my face.

I seem to be then
a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
“Beat the Yids. Save Russia!”
some grain-marketeer beats up my mother.

0 my Russian people!
I know
are international to the core.

But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.

I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these anti-Semites-
without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
Anne Frank
as a branch in April.

And I love.
And have no need of phrases.
My need
is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much –
embrace each other in a darkened room.

They’re coming here?
Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
No, it’s the ice breaking …

The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
like judges.

Here all things scream silently,
and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
turning gray.

And I myself
am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.

I am
each old man
here shot dead.

I am
every child
here shot dead.

Nothing in me
shall ever forget!

The “Internationale,” let it
when the last anti-Semite on earth
is buried forever.

In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all anti-Semites
must hate me now as a Jew.

For that reason
I am a true Russian!

In the 1950s, Shostakovich had composed works that had drawn on the intonations of Jewish folk music, and had privately expressed to friends his loathing of anti-Semitism. In the conversations with Solomon Volkov, published in Testimony, hemade these comments on the Babi Yar massacre and anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union:

It would be good if Jews could live peacefully and happily in Russia, where they were born. But we must never forget about the dangers of anti-Semitism and keep reminding others of it, because the infection is still alive and who knows if it will ever disappear.

That’s why I was overjoyed when I read Yevtushenko’s ‘Babi Yar’; the poem astounded me. It astounded thousands of people. Many had heard about Babi Yar, but it took Yevtushenko’s poem to make them aware of it. They tried to destroy the memory of Babi Yar, first the Germans and then the Ukrainian government. But after Yevtushenko’s poem, it became clear that it would never be forgotten. That is the power of art.

People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko’s poem, but they were silent. And when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys silence.

Babi Yar appeared in the Literaturnaya Gazeta in September 1961 and, along with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, marked a brief opening for anti-Stalinist literature during the  Khrushchev period as Soviet leader.  By July 1962, Shostakovich had completed work on his ‘vocal-symphonic poem’, supplementing the opening ‘Babi Yar’ movement with four more, based on other poems by Yevtushenko that were critical of aspects of life in Soviet Russia.

In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross writes that:

The first movement, ‘Babi Yar’, is ostensibly a lament for Jewish suffering under the Nazis, but it also remembers life under Stalin. Yevtushenko devotes one section to a depiction of Anne Frank cowering with her family in the attic:  ‘Someone’s coming!’ ‘They’re breaking down the door!’ ‘No, it’s the ice breaking!’  Shostakovich responds with a series of dissonant, hammering chords, which, in their peculiar, hollowed-out voicing, suggest not only a murderous hand hammering at a door but also the terrified reactions of those waiting behind it.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko recites ‘Babi Yar’ with music from Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony

Shostakovich Symphony No. 13, ‘Babi Yar’: BBC Prom, Albert Hall, August 2006 (first movement)

The Phil was packed on Thursday evening: Vasily Petrenko has a dedicated and enthusiastic and this was the last event of his long-term project to conduct all Shostakovich’s symphonies, a labour that has extended over several seasons. The stage was packed with the large array of orchestral musicians, male voice choir and bass soloist that this piece requires.  Reviewing the performance by the RLPO for The Guardian, Tim Ashley wrote:

The Thirteenth is among the least ambiguous of Shostakovich’s symphonies. Setting poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko for male voice choir, bass soloist and a colossal orchestra, it rages overtly against Stalinism and demands we learn from history by refusing to revert to its extremes. The opening movement, drawing parallels between Nazi and Soviet antisemitism, is one of music’s great anti-racist statements, a thing of fury and terror, which Petrenko unleashed with tremendous force. Later he brought irony and sadness to bear on Shostakovich’s contemplation of the attempted suppression of satire, the dreariness of bread queues, and the nature of scientific and artistic responsibility.

Alexander Vinogradov was the aggressive yet sorrowing soloist. The men of the Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Huddersfield Choral Society sang with great fervour and intensity.

There were two additional pieces in the programme: Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, written in 1920 for an ensemble composed entirely of woodwind and brass instruments.The angular chordal blocks of that piece were in stark contrast to the second short work that made up the first half of the programme, Tchaikovsky’s romantic Serenade for Strings, composed entirely for strings.

Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments performed by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble