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Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (= 3 piccolos), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, contrabass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bongos, car horns, claves, congas, crotales, glass harmonica, glockenspiel, log drum, marimba, Peking opera gong, roto-toms, tam-tam, vibraphone, wood blocks), piano, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (world premiere)
Talking with Anders Hillborg about the composer's Violin Concerto for a 2003 recording, Esa-Pekka Salonen noted the characteristic contrasts in Hillborg's music: "the static and the hyperactive, the mechanical and the human, the nobly beautiful and the banally brutal, the comic and the moving. Almost never sentimental, but surreal in a way - like Dali's melting watches. And when something familiar does return, it is in a ritardando and distorted so far from its original guise that it becomes something quite different…"
That is an eerily prescient description of the new work Hillborg has written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and dedicated to Salonen, a long-time friend and colleague. It begins in stasis, with divided strings slowly expanding a harmonic world from a soft, unison F. As the winds add layered support, the strings begin a series of overlapping ascending chromatic scales and glissandos (D to D over six octaves) that grow in volume and speed until they seem to blast out of audibility. After a bar of silence, the ensuing section - marked "feverish, hyperactive and aggressive" - features maniacally chattering woodwinds, jabbed by the piano at the extreme ends of the keyboard.
That raucous energy gradually dissipates over brass and string chords, from which the rising string lines emerge again, shrieking up to the same D apogee. After a bar of silence comes a subtly scored D-major chord, heavily hammered on the piano and harp and decaying over soft strings, with an added G in the violas reinforced by glass harmonica. Brutal chords introduce and punctuate a new section of pointillistic, mock-Webern woodwind writing that eventually acquires the full orchestra and the rising lines. (As an homage to Walt Disney Concert Hall, Hillborg quotes from an old Disney television special featuring Kalle Anka - Donald Duck - that has become a Christmas eve tradition in Sweden.) These finally sustain the climax in a section marked "Terrible e grandioso," in which previous elements come together and, after much agitation, find their way back to something like the initial state of grace.
A single melody line in the piano then suggests the lilting character and isorhythmic procedures of late medieval music, accompanied by woodwind duets and a three-note ostinato on the vibraphone. Under the end of this a string quartet plays, softly and sweetly, a chorale, which has, Hillborg says, "a distant relation" to the Arietta movement (the theme-and-variations finale) of Beethoven's last Piano Sonata, Op. 111. Part tribute, part ghostly echo, this connects past and present in the context of the Philharmonic's Beethoven Unbound festival.
From this point of extreme quiescence, Hillborg rebuilds a massive sonority: string chords and pushing woodwinds, with piano and percussion taking over the chattering ostinato engine. In the final measures the rising, racing scales take over, leading to another shattering crunch on D for the violins, winds, and percussion, with the lower strings fading to black on a cluster spanning two-and-a-half octaves.
The composer has provided the following note:
The title Eleven Gates refers to the idea that the piece falls into 11 sections, each section being entered through its Gate either abruptly or by a slowly merging transition from the preceding one. I amused myself with giving each sound-world that the Gates lead into titles with a more or less surrealistic touch:
- Drifting into D major.
- Suddenly in the Room with Chattering Mirrors (Bar 28)
- D-major Still Life (Bar 101)
- Confused Dialogues with Woodpecker (Bar 113)
- Suddenly in the Room with Floating Mirrors (Bar 169)
- Into the Great Wide Open (Bar 188)
- Meadow of Sadsongs (Bar 289)
- Toy Pianos on the Surface of the Sea. (Bar 329)
- String Quartet Spiraling to the Seafloor (Bar 346)
- Seafloor Meditation (Whispering Mirrors at the Seafloor) (Bar 359)
- Waves, Pulse, and Elastic Seabirds (Bar 374)
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.