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Composed: 2008 - 2009
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons (2nd = contrabassoon), 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bongos, Chinese cymbals, crotales, glockenspiel, marimba, nipple gongs, side drum, spring coil, suspended cymbals, tambourine, tam tam, temple blocks, tenor drum, triangle, and vibraphone), piano, harp, strings, and mixed chorus
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (U.S. premiere)

Lindberg has composed several concertos and solo instrumental works, but he says “the orchestra is my favorite instrument.” A number of his orchestral and ensemble works are well known to Los Angeles Philharmonic audiences, thanks to Esa-Pekka Salonen’s championship of Lindberg’s music. Most recently, in October 2005, Salonen and the Philharmonic gave the world premiere of Lindberg’s Sculpture, which celebrates the architecture of Walt Disney Concert Hall and was co-commissioned by the Philharmonic.

Lindberg has not written much vocal music, however, and has been thinking about writing an opera for nearly 20 years. In the course of that process he began considering texts that do not have a plot but might still lend themselves to a dramatic structure. Eventually he turned to Latin texts, and was astonished to discover the vast body of inscriptions that have been collected. He decided to focus on inscriptions found in Pompeii, “as they offered such a unique and intact glimpse into a 2000 year-old society that suddenly ceased to exist,” he said in an interview with David Allenby. “Pompeii also offered the variety I needed for a large-scale work, with so many aspects of life described on so many levels, from the banal to the philosophical, from domestic activities to political and civic life.”

That gave him the subject matter for Graffiti. Lindberg organized the inscriptions into groups based on subject matter, and the intersection of these groups generated the structure of this big single movement. For his first large-scale choral work, Lindberg tried to develop the writing for the chorus from his orchestral techniques. “Sometimes the choir sings in homophonic blocks, sometimes solo and duet lines emerge, and at other times there are ‘chamber music-like’ choral divisi up to 16 voice parts,” Lindberg said in the interview with Allenby. “I wanted to match the harmonic style to the texts, so the vocal soundworld could be martial and gladiatorial, bawdy and licentious, or sinuously erotic. I have found few works where atonal choral writing truly succeeds (Ligeti is a rare example), so my harmonies here are more modal and tonal than in many of my pieces, and this lends a distinct flavor which helps project the immediacy of the everyday life stories in the graffiti.”

The world premiere of Graffiti took place May 20, 2009 in Helsinki, with Sakari Oramo conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Helsinki Chamber Choir. (They have also recorded the work for Ondine.) It received its U.K. premiere in October 2009, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. Graffiti won the 2009 Teosto Prize from the Finnish Composers’ Copyright Society.

“All Roman life seems to be contained within these brief Latin texts, and Lindberg’s selection of around 60 of them – official proclamations and announcements, adverts and slogans of every kind – creates a kind of verbal patchwork quilt that builds into a rather touching snapshot of the doomed city,” Andrew Clements wrote in The Guardian after the U.K. premiere. “What is going on behind the voices is often just as fascinating as the vocal writing itself, and the orchestral writing comes to the fore in the dark, uneasy introduction and an interlude of woodwinds two-thirds of the way through. It is such a beautiful, satisfyingly shaped choral work that you wonder why Lindberg took so long to get around to writing it.”

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.