In 1995, Magnus Lindberg was commissioned to supply a test piece for the first Jean Sibelius International Conducting Competition. The aim was to provide artistic and technical challenges, particularly for the conductor, as well as to create a satisfying musical experience for the audience. Lindberg succeeded on both fronts: Arena presents the conductor with rapid meter changes, shifts of tempo, layers of polyrhythms to coordinate, and issues of balance, and it amounts to an exciting listening experience.
Arena is much broader in expression than Corrente II -- his orchestral work of similar scope from 1992. The single-movement form is more clearly episodic, offering stretches of contrasting material instead of brief fragments. The music contains all the hallmarks of Lindberg's style, including rapid figurations flitting across the orchestra, a powerful harmonic underpinning, bright instrumental colors, and layered textures.
One of the conductor's primary concerns is balance, particularly in projecting simultaneous strands of music and in tapering one into another. There is also a stronger focus on melodic identity than had been present in many of Lindberg's earlier scores, lending the music a rather Romantic character. These lines are not always lyrical -- at times the melodies sound more like Stravinsky than anything from the nineteenth century -- but Lindberg is not shy of thinning the texture to allow the phrases to come through.
Some of the harmonies, particularly those featuring the brass in the expansive middle section, sound very familiar to anyone who has also listened to Corrente II. But one new element to Arena is the rather Mahlerian closing passage in which a dance-like ostinato builds to a swelling climax. A triumphant theme does issue forth, as one might expect, but it is somewhat veiled, owing more to the contemporary sensibilities of Polish symphonic composer Witold Lutoslawski than to expressions of an earlier era.