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Monday, May 25, 2015

Concert Review: Between East and West Lies the North

Susanna Mälkki debuts with the New York Philharmonic. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki made her Philharmonic debut this week.
Photography by Markku Niskanen © 2009 Ensemble Intercontemperain
As the New York Philharmonic prepares to end its 2014-15 season, America's oldest orchestra is sailing through uncertain waters. The orchestra is planning to vacate its premises for two years later this decade for necessary and total renovations to Avery Fisher Hall. They have finally elected a concertmaster to replace Glen Dicterow. Things became turbulent earlier this year when music director Alan Gilbert announced that he would step down.

In these circumstances, the scheduled, regular subscription program debuts of promising international conductors have felt like a series of auditions for Mr. Gilbert's job. This week it was the turn of Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki to lead the Philharmonic for the first time. A rising star in her native country, Ms. Mälkki is newly minted as music director of the Helsinki Philharmonic: one of the few women to hold a music directorship in the male-dominated concert industry.

For her debut with the orchestra, Ms. Mälkki chose two major works by Johannes Brahms, bookending the Philharmonic premiere of Tranquil Abiding, a meditative tone poem by the late British composer Jonathan Harvey. The Brahms works chosen were the Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn (based on a melody that may not have actually been written by the elder composer) and the Piano Concerto No. 1, with pianist Kirill Gerstein a late replacement for Jonathan Biss.

At Friday's matinee concert, the Haydn Variations  got off to a strong start with a rich-toned, mellifluous and good-humored account of  the initial theme. This famous melody was phrased warmly from the woodwinds and strings, setting the orchestra forth on a scenic journey that never dawdled or delayed. Brahms reworks his material eight times, exploring the potential of the theme in stirring fast passages,  a serene Andante and two Vivace movements that offer pitfalls for both conductor and orchestra. Ms. Mälkki navigated these smoothly and brought out a burnished tone quality sometimes missing in this music.

Jonathan Harvey's work was a 14-minute tone poem, using the bass instruments of the orchestra to mimic the sound of meditative breathing. Rising swells of sound were answered by descending diminuendo chords, with the whole ensemble playing in a rhythm that barely moved. Over this imposing sound, percussion and high winds were at play, with Philharmonic percussionist Daniel Druckman dividing his attention between suspended bells, wooden shells, a bamboo tree, gongs and tuned percussion. These ticks, tocks, tings and bangs lent an air of ritual to the mysterious breathing, as if listeners were transported to a temple in the Far East.

The audience hurtled westward again for the Brahms D Minor Concerto, with Mr. Gerstein in the solo part. This is one of Brahms' most symphonic creations, with the piano fully integrated into the three movements as if it were an ordinary member of the orchestra. Mr. Gerstein played his part in the massive first movement with speed and technical flash, but his figurations were all surface, a whirlwind of technique. Ms. Mälkki and the orchestra were better, exploring the soul of the movement in depth but one had the odd sensation of hearing two seperate performances played at the same time on the same stage.

The Philharmonic soloists joined Mr. Gerstein at the forefront of the music in the slow second movement, a tranquil Adagio rich in emotion and meaning. Brahms' reputation as a composer of "dense" symphonic movement is belied here by the playful, almost airy solos for clarinet, horn, and paired oboe and flute. Mr. Gerstein added his own color and contributions, playing with great grace in his solo passages. The finale was thrilling stuff, with Ms. Mälkki leading the forward charge and Mr. Gerstein a picture of concentration at the keys. This promising debut concert ended in a furious blaze of final notes, with conductor, orchestra and soloist finding common ground at last.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.