Composer Magnus Lindberg on his friendship with Salonen: 'The kind of collaboration you need"
When Esa-Pekka Salonen returns to the Walt Disney Concert Hall this weekend, after a full season’s absence, he will arrive as an old friend in a new guise, making his debut as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first conductor laureate. He will also be bringing along his own old friend to mark the occasion, composer Magnus Lindberg. In fact, the first piece Salonen will conduct during his two-week residency is Lindberg’s “Graffiti,” a recent work receiving its American premiere.
Lindberg and Salonen are more than mutually admiring colleagues –- their friendship dates to their student days in the early 1970s, when they attended the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland.
“We were booted into a special class to keep us apart from the other students,” Lindberg, 52, recalled recently, speaking by phone from New York, where he is the New York Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence. “It was theory class just for us, because we were too disruptive to the larger class."
In time, both young men emerged as composers, with Lindberg largely confining his efforts to writing rather than performing music, and Salonen leaning more toward performance, though he has certainly composed aplenty too.
Lindberg ranked high among the many composers whose music Salonen championed during his 17 seasons as music director in L.A. Two of his works receiving their premieres here: “Fresco” in March 1998 and “Sculpture” in October 2005. Salonen also gave the American premiere of Lindberg’s mighty “Kraft” at the Ojai Music Festival in 1999. (That work was considered so daunting, it received its American indoor premiere only earlier this season, in New York.)
“I’m so happy Esa-Pekka decided to program one of my works for his return,” Lindberg said, referring to “Graffiti.” The roughly 30-minute piece is scored for full orchestra and mixed chorus, in this case,the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Prior to completing it, the composer had largely avoided writing for voice. “It was a big project for me,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about writing an opera for 20 years, but I never got to it. Yet with ‘Graffiti,’ I felt I was ready for vocal music.”
The composer is reluctant to call “Graffiti” an oratorio, even though he acknowledges that it is one. The text is Latin and quotes real graffiti from ancient Rome. “They seem like they were written yesterday,” he said of the words, “even though they are 2,000 years old. It’s everything from high-level poetry to the rudest language. But because the rude language back then was extremely rude, I had to draw a line. I thought of my mother, who was coming to the premiere [in Helsinki]. But I still have some quite explicit texts in there. When the BBC broadcast Esa-Pekka’s performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra, it was run with a warning to parents. I’ve never been so proud as at that moment. ”
Though it’s been decades since Lindberg and Salonen –- who were born just three days apart -– lived in the same city, they are now often on the same continent. They speak weekly if not daily, according to Lindberg. “It’s like going to the shrink,” he said of their conversations. “We talk of everyday life.” He calls their friendship “a special connection,” with honesty about each other’s work a prized element.
“I remember that in 1976 I gave Esa-Pekka three pieces for horn and string trio as a Christmas present,” Lindberg said. “This came back to my playing his huge cello sonata, and ever since we’ve been sharing. So in that respect he is certainly the musician with whom I’ve been working for the longest time. And he has done almost without exception all of my conducted music –- and many of them plenty of times. He’s very honest, telling me to fix this or that. And that’s the kind of collaboration you need.
"As a composer you are very alone, and getting those around you to spit out some negative things is not easy. But he can say, ‘This transition doesn’t work,’ without ruining our friendship. And that’s very special to me.”
-- David Mermelstein
Top photo: Magnus Lindberg at the 2005 L.A. Phil concert featuring the premiere of his "Sculpture," which was conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Above: Lindberg embraces Salonen after the performance. Credit: Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times