Christian Lindberg Celebrates Centenary of New Zealand’s First Significant Composer

New ZealandNew Zealand    Norris, Sandström, Lilburn: David Bremner (trombone), New Zealand Symphony Orchestra / Christian Lindberg (trombone / conductor), Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, 1.5.2015 (PM)

Michael Norris:  Claro (World Premiere)
Jan Sandström: Echoes Of Eternity
Douglas Lilburn: Symphony No.2

Christian Lindberg and David Bremner Credit Mable Wong-500
Christian Lindberg and David Bremner Credit Mable Wong


The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s Aotearoa Plus featured a truly inspirational mix of compositional voices – from here and beyond in both time and space – and paid a handsome tribute along the way to Douglas Lilburn, New Zealand’s first significant “own” composer, whose birth-centenary occurs in November of this year.

Presenting this variegated tribute was guest conductor and trombonist extraordinaire, Christian Lindberg, who,gave inspirational performances of both Lilburn’s 1951 Symphony No.2 (impressively conducting the work without a score!) and the world premiere of Michael Norris’s Claro. Then, with the orchestra’s principal trombone, David Bremner, Lindberg played and conducted Jan Sandström’s double trombone concerto, Echoes of Eternity, a work as engagingly theatrical as thought-provokingly musical.

Michael Norris, currently Senior Composition Lecturer at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington, wrote Claro for the NZSO’s 2015 season, dedicating the work to the orchestra’s players. A note in the programme for the concert asserts that the work uses the same instrumentation as Lilburn did in writing his Second Symphony. It somewhat appropriately links the two pieces, as Lilburn himself was for a time Senior Lecturer in Composition at Victoria University’s Music Department, as the school was called previously. And, further to this, Norris had won the Lilburn Composition Prize in 2003.

According to the composer’s program note, claro means “light” or “clear” and denotes impressions of ” transparency, lightness and clarity”. The work’s opening textures certainly conveyed this kind of delicacy, putting me in mind in sonic terms of a sorcerer’s scattering of magic dust whose particles then intermingle, coalesce and suggest to the ear all kinds of variegated forms, with the help of timbres of a like variety, whose viscerally ranged from feathery suggestiveness to squishy implosions. The pointillistic textures seemed then to me to become more sostenuto in character, adding breath and tone to impulse, while the ambience gradually drew back its mysterious folds to reveal a cosmos of dynamic incident and interaction.

The composer’s “constant play of lines and forms” reminded me of similar kinds of treatment of material in Debussy’s “Jeux”, as if the sound-picture was creating for us a kind of theatre of orchestral interaction, delighting in its own spontaneous outpourings and inviting we listeners to share the same. We were drawn through archways wrought of exotic chordings and resonances, as a fanfare-like figure built slowly at first and then more dynamically, leading to triumphant shouts and answering scintillations, giving the textures momentum and pace and drive, and opening the way for further irruptions of energy. There was actually a fierce and savage quality about some of the workings-out, compelling good and patient sounds to remain steadfast in their anchorages, consoled by a solo violin in the aftermath of the “troubles”,  as something of the opening quietly-chiming radiance returned to the music at the very end of the piece.

Michael Norris’s prodigious command of colour and texture throughout this work took me closer in spirit and effect to certain pieces from Douglas Lilburn’s final period of creative work in the electronic studios which the older composer founded at the University during the 1960s and 70s. Despite the commonalities of instrumentation with Lilburn’s Symphony, the differences in the two works were, to my ears, profound – Norris’s Claro seemed wrought of impulse, magic and volatile energy, whereas the Symphony evoked a profound awareness of and interaction with rugged, deeply-rooted landscapes, shaped by the play of wind and water, and enlivened by pockets of human activity.

In between these two works, each representing Aotearoa (Land of the Long, White Cloud) was, of course, the “plus” of the concert’s title, Swedish composer Jan Sandström’s Double Trombone Concerto. Adding extra “frisson” to the occasion, of course, was the presence of Lindberg, the dedicatee of the piece, acknowledged throughout the world as the leading exponent of his instrument. It made the prospect of both hearing the work and witnessing the partnership between Lindberg and the orchestra’s own David Bremner an enticing one.

The work was written for the city of Cáceres in Spain, an ancient centre of different cultures and histories, the work becoming part of the city’s (unsuccessful) bid to be proclaimed the European “Capital of Culture” for 2016. I liked its theatricality, the off-stage trombone playing at the beginning while the orchestra was still warming up, and the the soloists’ making separate entrances from opposite sides of the platform, first Lindberg (conducting and playing) and then, a little afterwards, his foil, NZSO principal David Bremner (incidentally, giving as good as he was getting, all the way through). The two players engaged in concourse, discourse and friendly rivalry at various times, against a backdrop of sounds whose variety encompassed spontaneous energy and warmly romantic feeling.

Amid the excitements and contrasting sequences of warmly-ambient romanticism, Christian Lindberg recited a poem about the city, a task which I thought ought perhaps to have been given to an actor who knew how to make words resonate, – this was more a kind of “celebrity reading”, interesting from that standpoint, but the words could have well remained printed in the program and had pretty much the same effect. However, Lindberg immediately made superb amends upon his instrument with what sounded rather like a “fantasia on reveille” joined by the second trombone and answered by orchestral voices, like a kind of wakening impulse which brought to life those “echoes of eternity” in the form of exciting exchanges between soloists and orchestra, followed by a final, crepuscular sequence culminating in a single trombone’s voice being poignantly “silenced” by the other soloist with the use of a mute placed in the instrument’s bell…..

The concert’s second half brought sterner, more immediate realities to our ears, in the form of Douglas Lilburn’s Second Symphony. Christian Lindberg seemed completely “inside” the music from the start, not only conducting from memory, but appearing to “live” the sounds by gesture and expression, catching us listeners up in the music’s vividly-shaped contours and intensities. The gleaming precision of the brass (spectacular trumpet lines and Nielsen-like horn calls) superbly capped the great orchestral upheavals, the music’s strength throughout the first movement warmed by the lyrical detailing of the winds and the strings’ rich, sustaining tones.

Lindberg excitingly drove the Scherzo’s opening through the first exchanges, bringing out more excited bustle than good humour, but allowing a beautiful relaxation for the ‘cellos’ warmly nostalgic “Wellington evening paperboy’s tune”, and then deftly criss-crossing the mood with a brilliant return to the opening – details then crowded in, bringing an excitable clamour at the end! How dramatic, then, was the sudden isolation of those opening measures of the music which followed……though Lilburn’s debt to Vaughan Williams’ later music is as unmistakable as ever, the winds, bassoon, and flute, playing firstly in isolation and then in partnership, sound a more home-grown note – but, irrespective of origins, what vision! – and what strength and purpose in the playing!

It’s heretical to say this, I know – but I’ve never been able to reconcile in my own mind that blunt-ended “butting up” of slow movement and finale in this work – yes, the slow movement is marked “Introduction” suggesting that it is a kind of “prelude” to the finale;  but the last few measures of the slow movement do nothing except drift aimlessly and inconclusively to a standstill. It’s as though the music then needs to “cast around” a bit for some connective tissue that would propel it in a fresh direction, but it doesn’t. Without any warning, the finale begins a completely new sequence of an entirely different character. Could there have been a final page of score for Movement 3 lost somewhere, perhaps at the printers?

Lindberg encouraged from the players a lovely pastoral element at the opening, one which returned with the wind solos after the momentous brass-and strings irruptions. Generally, we got a beautifully airborne lightness, the brass sound ecstatic in places, the timpani roaring excitingly and the winds and strings dancing together – in fact, almost almost hoedown-like in one of two places – and then there was that ecstatic moment when strings briefly touched the stratospheres and called the brass out to celebrate – there were brief reminiscences of the darkness of previous times, but all was swept away by the organ-like splendour of the final sustained chords.

Sustained applause greeted both Lindberg and his players at the symphony’s end – though the house was by no means full, those present made it their business to make the empty spaces alike rattle and resound with justly-deserved acclamation.

Peter Mechen

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