Magnus Lindberg, speaking before the premiere of his imposing new work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Thursday night, told us not to put too much stock in the title, "Fresco." This is a big piece--its structure and granitic masses of sound might suggest grandeur similar to the great Italian wall paintings. The Finnish composer was a little more specific for the program notes, implying that the fresco technique of fusing color and plaster is akin to his own interest in fusing succulent musical color with adamantine harmony. The French call this spectral music.
But, in fact, "Fresco," which was commissioned by the Philharmonic and is dedicated to Esa-Pekka Salonen, is completely abstract music. And since abstraction is fair game for any kind of interpretation, and since "Fresco" seemed an unimaginative title for music that sounded this fresh and eventful, I chose to think of a hurling asteroid instead of an immobile plaster wall. Having gone into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion convinced by the day's news that the world could end in massive conflagration in 30 years, I found Lindberg's music an apt evocation on the sheer magnificence but also stony-cold workings of the cosmos.
"Fresco," which lasts nearly 22 minutes, feels very much like music about the world before and after humanity. The primitive implications are at the beginning, with prominent high bassoons that bring "The Rite of Spring" to mind. But for the rest, this is a complex weaving of inhuman sonorities. Lindberg uses the orchestra as if it were one massive instrument full of ever-changing textures. He has made a structure out of alternating what he calls soft and loud styles. But the music is too full for that to seem particularly striking on first hearing.
Instead it is the play of light and dark, of colors and textures, that commands attention. It is the orchestra as night sky, with more texture than we can ever penetrate. Lindberg has an ear for deep, deep bass--subwoofer lovers should race to the Pavilion, acoustically deficient though it is, for electronics can never match the power of this low music.
Lindberg is also a composer whose music has a strong sense of a machine. Near the end, the rhythms collate into something mechanical sounding. But it can also seem the relentless pursuit of nature, of a cosmos in tune with itself. That, and the atom bomb explosions of the climaxes, is hurling asteroid territory.
If Lindberg brought forth apocalyptic visions, the rest of the program offered reasons to regret them. Leonard Bernstein's "Serenade" is a violin concerto that takes its inspiration from Plato's dialogue on love in the "Symposium." This is music that certainly sounded sweet after a Lindbergian conflagration, Bernstein lingering on sentiment and emotional specifics. But Bernstein also experimented with a technique of themes chasing each other from movement to movement, which is similar to the way Lindberg, though more obscurely, moves his music forward.
The concert ended with more visions of the life on Earth, in this case Robert Schumann waking up and smelling the roses along the banks of his beloved Rhine. His Symphony No. 3 ("Rhenish") is not exactly nature painting, though the nostalgic, pastoral and heroic sentiments are all clear enough. But in the context of Lindberg's profound truths about how everything changes, Schumann's attempt to remain stuck like glue to the banks of the Rhine seemed all the more poignant.
I've waited until the end to mention the performances. Somehow with visions of a world in its final decades the music seemed to be what mattered. It is not the quality of the string quartet playing as the Titanic went down that mattered, but what it played.
The asteroid is not, of course, going to hit us after all. And it is safe to report that the Philharmonic is in spectacular form this week. I'm not sure that any combination of conductor and orchestra could have pulled off the Lindberg, on a regular rehearsal schedule, the way the Philharmonic did. In the Schumann, Salonen scrubbed away a century and a half of grime and made the music sound clean, clear and newly exciting. The orchestra, fine as ever, produced tremendous bursts of energy for it. Principal concertmaster Martin Chalifour was the luminous soloist in the Bernstein, as he had been at the Hollywood Bowl in September.
* The Los Angeles Philharmonic repeats this program tonight at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., $8-$63, (213) 850-2000.