Reviews are in for Anders Hillborg’s Piano Concerto No.2 – the MAX Concerto, which premiered on 12 October with Emanuel Ax, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and the San Francisco Symphony. The 22-minute work was commissioned for Emanuel Ax by the San Francisco Symphony with the generous support of John Kongsgaard. Ax will give the Swedish premiere of the work in January 2024 with Ryan Bancroft and the Stockholm Philharmonic; in February he performs the concerto with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Eun Sun Kim.

Like the recent concertos for viola (2021) and cello (2020), Hillborg’s Piano Concerto No.2 is cast in one unbroken span. ‘Grand piano’ opens the work with keyboard-traversing flourishes. ‘Mist’, in the shape of divided strings, then settles. From it a tinkling ‘Toy Piano’ emerges. In ‘Chorales and echo chamber’ the woodwinds shadow accents in the piano’s quasi-baroque writing before a glittering climax with crotales, bells, and glockenspiel. ‘Hard Piano’ then presents a toccata-like sequence of brilliant, jagged passagework that plunges into a cadenza. As if encouraged by the virtuoso display, the orchestra joins the piano for a grand, passionate statement of the opening theme. ‘Ascending piano’ climbs to a sweeping finale before the music recedes into the distance. 

…vivacious, funny, heroic, eloquent, plain-spoken, thoughtful and wholly irresistible…This is a work in which constructive ingenuity and the pleasure principle walk arm in arm… It includes a couple of delectable sections labeled “Toy Piano,” in which sparse, high-pitched

patterns cast a crystalline spell…[Hillborg] writes with a generous, expressive touch. You can’t help but love the result.

San Francisco Datebook (Joshua Kosman), 13 October 2023

…a fascinating ball of fun…The music’s most remarkable and winning characteristic is the merging of the piano with sections of the orchestra. High jangling notes from the piano are matched with every chiming sound available from the percussion. Little piano motifs are played simultaneously by piccolo or other wind instruments. Active tumbling figures in the piano are set against sheens of string sound.

San Francisco Classical Voice (David Bratman), 16 October 2023

…it is an often nakedly emotional, at times tender work…[it] opens big, in the tradition of late 19th-century piano concertos. But it soon evokes the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel on the keyboard and organ-like sonorities from the orchestra. Without ever gainsaying his own distinctive voice, the composer accrues, magpie-like, an amalgam of other sonic signatures for this work…All this in just 20 minutes, at which point the concerto comes to a gentle, fading end, concluding with neither bang nor whimper, but instead something of an organic dissolve.

Wall Street Journal (David Mermelstein), 13 October 2023

[Hillborg’s concerto] lit up Davies Symphony Hall with joyful insouciance and effortless creativity…the highlight of a concert brimming with energetic music-making…Hillborg’s harmonies and fresh orchestration created moments of sheer beauty, and there was wit too. Portions of it were played at the very top range of the piano emulating a toy piano, and there was a delightful contrapuntal section that winked at Baroque dances…artful transitions deftly tied it all together into a sort of stream of consciousness.

Seen and Heard International (Harvey Steiman), 15 October 2023

In October Salonen opened the San Francisco Symphony’s 2023/24 season with Hillborg’s playful Rap Notes for rappers, coloratura soprano, and orchestra; the performance also featured an innovative use of live AI-generated visualisations. In January 2024 he leads Hillborg’s 70th birthday celebrations in Stockholm with a Jubilee concert with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.