He is Sweden’s internationally most frequently performed composer: Hillborg , whose creative orchestral scores have ignited the foremost orchestras and concert halls on the globe. ABBA’s legacy in Sweden with respect to popular music is strong, but Hillborg’s imaginative soundscape has an irresistible pull on concert audiences everywhere – from Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles to the Berlin Philharmonic and Tonhalle Zürich. Thus, featuring Sweden’s internationally most sought-after composers, Anders Hillborg, in the annual Composer’s Festival in the Stockholm Concert Hall is a natural choice. Five concerts presenting 25 of his works will provide an unparallelled opportunity to deep dive into Hillborg’s musical world.

The Managing Director of the Concert Hall, Stefan Forsberg stresses the fact that the aim of the festival is to bring attention to composers who have a significant impact on the international music scene: “Wherever I travel, my colleagues all over the world glowingly praise Hillborg’s musical imagination. And, if you ask the equivalents of the Michelin Guides of the music world, such as the Berlin Philharmonic, Renée Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma and others, they go into raptures over the way Anders’ music swings, liberates and renews the orchestral repertoire.”

The Composer’s festival was initiated 28 years ago, and has become a significant statement in the world of classical music. Being selected for the festival is an honour which touches composers deeply. Profiles through the years include Polar Music Prize winners Kaija Saariaho, Sofia Gubaidulina, Steve Reich and György Ligeti, as well as Esa-Pekka Salonen (as composer), Hans Werner Henze, Henri Dutilleux and other luminaries.

When it comes to Hillborg, this festival is the second time around. But the first time he was featured, 15 years ago in 1999, he was not alone but rather shared the stage with contemporaries Pär Lindgren and Jan Sandström. What has happened since?

“Everything! My entire career! In fact, almost all of the music presented on the festival was written after that, excepting a few: the violin concerto, some of the chamber music and the choral piece muo:aa:yiy::oum.”

Fans and admiring critics like to compare Anders Hillborg to John Adams. Hillborg’s music is packaged with playful titles holding a narrative twist - Cold Heat, Exquisite Corpse, Liquid Marble, Eleven Gates. And he quotes themes from Disney movies as well as motifs by Richard Strauss or Sibelius. The musical change of climate has made a difference over the years, he acknowledges: “Today is a much more creative era than when I studied at the conservatory. At that time, my colleagues would laugh at me if I had said that West Side Story was a brilliant score,” Hillborg - who grew up listening to The Beatles - notes.

Hillborg also acknowledges the importance of having ambassadors who bring his music to audiences worldwide. “Unless you're a conductor or performer yourself, it's of course absolutely crucial to maintain close contact with musicians.” In Hillborg’s case, none but the very best: conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, chief conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in the 1980s, conductor Alan Gilbert, clarinettist Martin Fröst and soprano Renée Fleming. On a recent CD with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra released on the BIS label, Salonen, Gilbert and Sakari Oramo each conduct Hillborg’s key orchestral works. “I probably wouldn’t have written orchestral music if there hadn't been such a marvellously curious and versatile conductor like Salonen around.”

The theatrically conceived Peacock Tales for Martin Fröst has travelled the globe in innumerable different settings. “I love it when a piece starts to live its own life through a performer. Martin’s energy and inventiveness resulted for a while in a number of different versions of the piece.  Now we've restricted it to three versions,” explains Hillborg.

Oddly enough, there was a time in Anders Hillborg life when his music was considered unplayable. He laughs at the memory of the reaction from the commissioner of his choral piece, muo:aa:yiy::oum, the touring organisation Rikskonserter: “I received a letter which stated that they would never commission another piece from me, since my music was unplayable,” he remembers. Today the piece is a standard with a cappella choirs, allowing them to show off a rhythmically complex spectrum of overtone series unadorned with words. “I had originally set a text by e.e. cummings to music - everyone was doing it at the time!” he says ironically. “But the text killed the music and vice versa… so I just got rid of the words.”

Although he has written vocal music - most recently an orchestral song cycle for soprano Renée Fleming entitled Strand Settings - he admits finding words difficult to deal with. “Renée and I had an intense dialogue, and I wanted to use a text by Tomas Tranströmer who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Both Renée and I wanted the text to be in English, but when I read Tranströmer's poems in English I felt that so much of the substance got lost in translation.”

Instead, Fleming provided him with poetry by Canadian-American poet Mark Strand. What’s the key to success, then, with vocal music? “I don’t know!” He indicates that he finds realistic, contemporary poetry difficult to set to music, banal details weighing the music down. Nevertheless the human voice is central to his understanding of music. “You know, I learned about music through singing,” he says, reminding me of growing up as a choral singer. “Through singing, I learned about intervals and got an organic sense of how music is constructed.”

The last concert of the Composer’s Festival features a world première, Beast Sampler, which will be performed twice during the evening. “There are two reasons for performing it twice: one being that it's so much easier for the audience to experience a new piece if they hear it a second time. The other reason is pragmatic. I wanted to save on rehearsal time.”

The beast, the untamed, uncontrollable animal is of course the orchestra. “Beast Sampler is more about sound than pitch. There are some ‘samples’ from earlier pieces of mine, as well as new samples.”

What about the aquatic theme in his music? The titles refer to tides, ocean waves, sirens, underwater worlds… and the attentive listener might hear the strange, distorted sounds of the underwater world in his music. “I used to go scuba diving in the Maldives, in Thailand... If you descend 12 metres below the surface of a coral reef, that’s where the party is! But I haven’t done it for a while.”

And as though connecting to a modernist perception of the stream of consciousness – the metaphoric equivalent of the aquatic theme – Hillborg has decided to programme the first concert without a single break, allowing one piece to flow without interruption into the next. “Why not? It’s my festival. It’s my opportunity to try something out which I couldn’t do anywhere else.”

The Managing Director of the Concert Hall, Stefan Forsberg told me “Together with chief conductor Sakari Oramo and our friend Esa-Pekka Salonen, we look forward to presenting a two week long musical feast, where every single piece bears the signature of a musical superstar - who is a Swede!”


This article is sponsored by the Stockholm Concert Hall.