Magnus Lindberg balances refinement and energy in his ‘Serenades’

Hanya Chlala

Composer Magnus Lindberg lets out a quiet chuckle when asked about his new work, Serenades, a Chicago Symphony Orchestra co-commission that will have its world premiere Dec. 2-4 under conductor Hannu Lintu. (The work was finished in 2020, but the pandemic delayed its premiere, originally scheduled for last season.) 

“When I was approached to write a piece,” said the Finnish composer in a phone conversation from his home in Helsinki, “the commission came with a kind of unusual understatement: Please, could I write a serenade?”

Hardly a typical request for an internationally renowned composer whose music is most often described as “explosive,” “brash,” “fast,” “brilliant.” The mood of a serenade, whether by Mozart or Tchaikovsky, tends to be more slowly paced and introspective, even nocturnal.

“That initial point had to do, I think, with my long history,” said Lindberg, who is 63. “I’ve been writing over the decades, and by taming me a little bit with a word like ‘serenade,’ they tried to push me in some direction. But I’m not entirely sure,” he said with a laugh. “I succeeded in making it merely a serenade. The piece is much more than a serenade.”

Writing for the CSO certainly prompted Lindberg to take some liberties with the traditional notion of a serenade. In 2001, the CSO give its first performance of Lindberg’s music, his exuberant Feria, written in the mid-1990s. His first CSO commission was Ottoni, a 2005 chamber piece written for the orchestra’s legendary brass section.

“They wanted something for a smaller component of the orchestra,” said Lindberg, “and the very first thought I had was to write for the Chicago brass because it’s an epic section in the universe.”

Lindberg knew the CSO from recordings and has heard its live concerts both in Chicago and on tour in the United States and Europe over the years. “When I got a chance to write a piece for the full symphony, I was truly delighted,” he said. “An orchestra on that level has its own approach about how to produce sound. For me, Chicago is something that’s energetic and powerful, but very sophisticated, refined.”

Serenades explores that combination of refinement and energy. “I started to sketch some material that would have some kind of the serenade’s slower pace,” he said. “But finally I ended up with the title in plural, Serenades. Deep down, there is something that has the slow character of a serenade, but in my case, it is very often a starting point or ending point.”

Lindberg admits the 17-minute piece “takes off in many contrasting directions, with big cuts and quick shifts."

The fascination when composing for orchestra "is creating lines involved with plenty of notes and breaking them up between the different sections," he said. "I do like also the classical approach where you make a clear distinction between sections. But an orchestra can blur and do everything in a more complex, chaotic interaction.”

Like Chicago, Finland is noted for its boundary-pushing architecture, and Lindberg thinks of the orchestra in architectural terms, calling it a “fantastic apparatus.”

He regards the symphony orchestra as "a very three-dimensional instrument. And there’s the pleasure of writing music for a big space because normal symphony orchestra concerts are in big spaces. If you draw a skyscraper, it has to have a certain kind of skyscraper outline, or it would never function. Writing music for symphony orchestra is very different from writing for smaller ensembles. Writing for the orchestra, one must bear in mind that the pieces will be played in a larger space. Especially today when we have all these big halls.”

As a fledgling composer, Lindberg experimented with unusual instruments and exotic sound with equally young Finnish colleagues including Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho. For Serenades, however, he is sticking with the traditional combination of strings, winds, brass and percussion.

“For this piece, I didn’t do what I sometimes do — exclude some instrumental sections or add something unusual," he said. "I wanted it to be a standard, Romantic-sized orchestra. It’s not merely by chance that the symphony orchestra became what it is. The balance between these sections is fantastic.”

While two new works by Lindberg, Absence and Encore, had their world premieres during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, he is looking forward to being in Chicago for rehearsals of Serenades.

“It’s been a long two years for everybody,” he said. “I finished Serenades more than a year ago. It’s very thrilling to think about hearing the piece after it’s been set aside for so long. I haven’t changed anything, and I’m very, very happy to be coming to Chicago together with my longtime friend, Hannu Lintu, with whom I’ve been working for over 30 years. He knows my music very well. I’m sure if anything has to be fixed — balances, dynamics, occasionally even to change an orchestration idea — Hannu is very efficient.

"That’s part of the fun and luxury of being a composer today, that you go to rehearsals and fix things quickly if needed. I’m looking forward to it because that’s definitely one of the elements I’ve been missing the most during this long COVID period.”

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