Serene, Visceral Hillborg Concerto Ends All Too Soon

Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra opened their 115th season with short works by Stravinsky, Berlioz, Ravel, and John Adams, plus a new violin concerto by Anders Hillborg. (Photo by Courtney Perry, courtesy of Minnesota Orchestra)
By Michael Anthony

MINNEAPOLIS – Marketing departments of orchestras, with the aid of focus groups, consultants, and heavy data, seek a foolproof formula for the perfect season-opener. The program, they feel, should send a message: “Join us, we’re chic and up-to-date” or, conversely, “Come home with us and we’ll reminisce about the old days.”

Osmo Vänskä came up with his own sensible, nicely balanced program to kick off the Minnesota Orchestra’s 115th season: four varied, short, mostly familiar pieces surrounding a new violin concerto. If there was a message, it was “We honor the past but we live in the present. Trust us.”

Composer Anders HIllborg (Mats Lundqvist, courtesy Faber Music)

It helped that the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Anders Hillborg, played Sept. 14 at Orchestra Hall, turned out to be a work of rare mystery and beauty. It’s the kind of music that, when it stops – and it does so rather abruptly – you want it to keep going.

The 63-year-old Hillborg, who was present at the performance, is probably the leading light in Swedish music today. Renée Fleming sang his song cycle The Strand Settings at Orchestra Hall in 2014. Looking ahead, in concerts Nov. 14-19,  the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra will give the American premiere of a work of Hillborg’s for solo violin and strings, Bach Materia.

Hillborg’s Second Violin Concerto was having its American premiere in these weekend concerts. The work was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra and three other orchestras. The concerto received its official premiere in October of 2016, with soloist Lisa Batiashvili, conductor Sakari Oramo and the Stockholm Philharmonic, below:

Hillborg is often characterized as an eclectic, meaning that he works in several styles. The term is no longer useful since most composers today are eclectic. Like many others, Hillborg draws on many influences: pop music, electronic sounds, music of the distant past – the Renaissance in Hillborg’s case.

The softer and gentler of the two contrasting elements that alternate in this 25-minute, single-movement concerto evokes the “mystical minimalism” of recent decades by composers such as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. The music floats, seeking no particular direction. Time seems to stop. The music becomes a globe slowly turning on its axis, which makes the solo violin a nervous asteroid attracted to and repelled by the globe. These moments of intense lyricism, suggesting eternity, alternate with vigorous, lusty, up-tempo, rock-influenced passages in the lower strings – mind versus body.

James Ehnes, the much admired Canadian violinist, was the adroit – really quite brilliant – soloist. Vänskä conducted with his customary vigor and care for detail. Composer, conductor, and soloist embraced warmly on the stage during the enthusiastic applause at the end.  Ehnes shares his thoughts about the concerto here:

The other works – by Stravinsky, Berlioz, Ravel, and John Adams – received committed, polished performances. Michael Gast brought a sweet nobility to the horn solo in Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess, which people of a certain age will recognize as the pop song “The Lamp Is Low.” Vänskä’s reading of the piece, full of subtleties, made it seem fresh and new.

The three concerts were dedicated to the conductor Stanisław Skrowaczewski, who died in February at the age of 93. A revered figure throughout the world, but especially in the Twin Cities – his home for 57 years – Skrowaczewski was this orchestra’s music director from 1960 to 1979 and, until his death, conductor laureate.

Michael Anthony, veteran Twin Cities music critic, is preparing his second book, a history of Minnesota Opera.