By Cristina Schreil
Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, his tall frame lending full command at a pre-concert talk in New York’s David Geffen Hall one morning, suddenly seemed humbled.
“It’s not fair for a composer to be programmed in the same . . .” Lindberg began, his voice trailing into a reserved laugh. He appeared before the second of three concerts presenting his new Violin Concerto No. 2. Audience members chuckled at Lindberg’s remark, too, as if the composer—whose concerto was programmed between Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows) by Ottorino Respighi and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) by Igor Stravinsky—touched on a shared musing: How will this new music compare to these famously illustrative works? Is there a spiritual thread, with Respighi drawing from Gregorian chants, and Stravinsky channeling pagan Russian folklore? Mystery still swirled about the piece, as the world premiere was just one month earlier in London. The US premiere was held the evening before.
It was a fitting return to New York for Lindberg, who served as the New York Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence from 2009–12. He wrote his first violin concerto in 2006, and hinted that, this time, “bigger forces” are at play. He also asserted the “essential” luxury of composing for friends; the second concerto is dedicated to and written for German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann.
“There are a lot of things boiling,” Lindberg said of the work, later adding, “I like to get into the deep essence of, why do we put sounds together?”
Later, when Zimmermann took to the stage mid-concert, this notion of several percolating elements seemed especially fitting. The piece began as Zimmermann sparked life into a three-note theme, which then developed. In the earlier talk, Lindberg likened the “struggle” between soloist and orchestra as one mimicking a spiral, bound to a fate of departing and returning. But it felt more like Zimmermann had begun to turn a playground roundabout, which other sections of the orchestra gradually leaped aboard, changing the music with them. The concerto’s three movements were played straight through, capitalizing on that momentum.
Zimmermann commanded the stage with a fine balance of power—his sparkling sound held its own against the orchestra—and enthralling technique. When the pace slowed in the middle, extended cadenza movement, Zimmermann was especially arresting, unleashing pizzicati and double-stops.
In the pre-concert talk, musicologist Elizabeth Seitz compared the process of an orchestra developing a theme to the patient process of pulling taffy. That image, of stretching and reworking material until glistening and complete, applied more as the rest of the concerto unfolded.
The work also befit the lush atmosphere conjured first in Church Windows. The performance highlighted the detailed nature of the work, a particular wonder as Respighi did not compose with specific biblical tales in mind, but rather embraced a general feeling of faith.
His friend Claudio Guastalla assigned the movements’ titles afterward. In the monastic third movement, “The Matins of St. Clare,” an entrancing melody played with warmth by the string sections especially evoked an ethereal space.
Unsurprisingly, emotive storytelling was best exemplified in the rousing Rite. Viewing it live, without dancers, can reacquaint a listener with how pivotal the amber-toned violas are at moments when the mood takes a turn to the mystical, as it does in “Spring Rounds.”
Music director Alan Gilbert seemed to snag hold of the building energy from earlier in the concert and spin it toward the work’s tremendous, tragic conclusion.
Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin. Lincoln Center, David Geffen Hall. New York, New York: The Rite of Spring