The motorbike concerto man
ARTS: Swedish trombonist and composer Christian Lindberg tells Arminta Wallace why classical music needs shock therapy
Leather biker gear, assorted weaponry and some extremely rude noises? It may sound like the prop department for a dodgy DVD, but it's all in a day's work for the Swedish trombonist Christian Lindberg. "I think you could say I've been a rebel in classical music," he declares, on the phone from a hotel room in Cincinatti, where he has just performed with the Cincinatti Symphony Orchestra.
A glance at his CV suggests this is something of a nordic understatement. Lindberg has blazed a trail as a soloist on an instrument which - outside of jazz bands - rarely gets a turn in the spotlight. And while audiences adore his extrovert performance style and a repertoire which includes a motorbike concerto and a musical spaghetti western, during the course of which he "shoots" the conductor and takes up the baton himself, critics are impressed by his technical wizardry. "Gurgles, dive bombs, gorgeous cantabile . . . and an awesome degree of virtuosity," was the London Times's verdict on his recital at the Barbican last year.
The review's note of faint surprise doesn't surprise Lindberg. He's quite used to being asked "The trombone: why?" and he's ready with his answer. "We started a Dixieland band when I was 17," he says. "We were a couple of guys in school. Our fathers had records of Louis Armstrong and other players, and we decided to form a band ourselves."
And does the absence of trombone soloists on the classical front indicate a lack of expressive potential on the part of the instrument itself? He's ready for that one, too. "Oh, no - absolutely not. It's one of the most expressive instruments that exists, and the jazz players have proved that very clearly. Every instrument is expressive. It's up to the instrumentalist to invent the expressivity."
Lindberg says he has done this by listening, not just to jazz trombonists, but to music of all kinds. As a teenager he had a passion for The Beatles. What does he listen to now? "Ugh," he says. "Everything. At the moment, I'm quite fascinated by Eminem. I think he's a very creative artist. I listen to Coltrane, Miles Davis, Mozart. Sibelius is also just now a big favourite." Eminem and Sibelius? Now there's eclectic. Most classical musicians wouldn't know Eminem from a bar of chocolate. "Yes, and that's what's ruining classical music," says Lindberg sternly. "They don't even look at other art forms, they think they're so much better. It's no wonder so many orchestras have problems with their finances.
"But that mentality is going to disappear. We live in a world where the different styles of music are merging into something new. I'm on the board of a very prestigious music prize, the Polar prize, which was set up to encourage this. You know Abba? Well, their manager has donated money to the Swedish Music Academy for this prize. It has been given to Paul McCartney, to Dizzy Gillespie, to Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. This year they gave it to Keith Jarrett. For breaking down the barriers between different styles. That's the way music is going."
As far as repertoire is concerned, a trombone soloist has two options: commission new pieces, or dig up works which have been lost, neglected or forgotten. Lindberg has done plenty of the former.
Luciano Berio wrote him a big band-influenced concerto (which he performed with the NSO in Dublin last year), and his compatriot Jan Sandström produced the aforementioned motorbike extravaganza. "It features a modern-day Ulysses, who travels around the world on an iron horse, so to speak," says Lindberg. Sandström also composed one of the two pieces Lindberg will play in Belfast on Friday, Cantos de la Mancha. "The motorbike concerto was a description of a macho hero, really," explains Lindberg, "so when we thought, 'How can we beat that?' the only way was to use an anti-hero. And who better than Don Quixote?"
The result is, by all accounts, gasp-inducing, with Lindberg called upon to narrate, sing and fight with windmills - oh, and play the trombone, of course. "After the British première, the Independent wrote, 'Forget Richard Strauss - this is the one'.
"We were very happy about that," he says. By contrast, the Ferdinand David trombone concerto is a work of late German romanticism. "Mendelssohn conducted the première in 1837, and it was played throughout the 19th century in many, many places," says Lindberg. "Then Fritz Reiner brought it to America in 1922, and the whole orchestral material was lost. All that existed when I found it was a solo part and a very bad piano reduction. From that I have reorchestrated it."
His interest in orchestration led Lindberg to a third repertoire option - writing his own. "I always wanted to be a composer. When I was 18, I wrote one piece, but when I heard it played by a brass quintet, I thought I'd never write anything again. It was such a shock. In my head, I had one idea of it, and when I heard it . . . well. It takes time for musicians to learn a new piece, of course. But I supposed it was all my fault. So I decided: never again."
It was Jan Sandström who persuaded him to change his mind and, having recently premièred a double concerto for trombone and trumpet with Håkan Hardenberger, he now has commissions until the year 2006, a position many contemporary composers would envy.
Lindberg, however, baulks at the word "composer". "What's very important for me is not at all to talk about any kind of style. I have no wish to write something that is 'style' or 'composing' or anything like that. I just want to sit and listen to what comes out of my brain," he explains.
And what does come out of his brain? "Everything that has gone in there - every single note that has passed through my unconscious. When I wrote my piece Mandrake in the Corner, for instance, I basically wrote it to learn the computer because I had written by hand before. I had no name for the piece, but what came out sounded like detective music combined with . . . I don't know. Something strange. It reminded me of Mandrake, the magician from the 1930s. But he was not a central figure in the piece - so I put him in the corner."
Besides performing, recording and composing, Christian Lindberg is a conductor, an enthusiastic giver of master classes and the father of four teenagers. He lives on an idyllic peninsula outside Stockholm. "It's very important to me. We have eagles, we have deer. It's fantastic. When you've been away on tour and you get really exhausted, you can just go there and sit on your own for one or two days. All the stress just falls off."
Christian Lindberg is soloist with the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by Takuo Yuasa, at the Ulster Hall, Belfast, on Friday. The programme includes Grieg's Holberg Suite and Sibelius's First Symphony