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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Concert Review: The Woman Who Played With the Sea

Susanna Mälkki returns to the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The conductor Susanna Mälkki returned to the New York Philharmonic this week.
Photo by Sakari Viika © 2017 Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.
Just a couple of years ago, a number of names were tossed around as candidates for who should become the New York Philharmonic's next music director. One of the leading candidates was Susanna Mälkki, the Finnish conductor who is best known to New Yorkers for leading the 2016 New York premiere of her compatriot Kaija Saariaho's opera L'amour de Loin. Ms. Mälkki did not get the job, but she returned to the Philharmonic this week.

Most symphonic concerts follow this format: a short piece opens, usually an overture or a small tone poem. It is followed by a longer work, most often a concerto. The second half is devoted to symphony. However, Ms. Mälkki and soloist Baiba Skride elected to alter that order by opening this concert with Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. Now a staple of the repertory, the "Tchaik" faced rejection from its intended first soloist on the grounds that it was unplayable. Funnily enough, the same thing happened to the composer's first piano concerto too.

Ms. Skride proved herself to be an able interpreter, taking on the Olympian climb of the opening movement with gusto and guts. Tchaikovsky throws all sorts of curve balls at the soloist, a difficult, off-kilter rhythm for the main theme, elaborate figurations that recall the baroque writing of Handel and Vivaldi, and a monstrous cadenza that requires the soloist to play against themselves, providing the tutti melody in the low strings as the upper line soars forth on the high ones.

Ms. Mälkki and Ms. Skride mined the second movement for a burnished lyricism, with the woodwinds providing supple support and the whole orchestra sounding dark and soulful. The zippy finale followed, with more high-flying athleticism from the soloist over a brisk, quick-stepping accompaniment. The only issue here: a thin and reedy tone from the violin that may have been the fault of the finicky acoustic of David Geffen Hall.

Esa-Pekka Salonen has used his three years as Composer-in-Residence to excellent ends, giving the Philharmonic audience a wide variety of new pieces to consider. Helix is one of his more geometric, musically economic constructions: a slow-rising spiral of sound modeled on Ravel's La Valse. Onward and upward it wound, climaxing in a series of sharp and jarring chords, a characteristic Salonen finish carried off with style and aplomb by his compatriot on the podium.

Of 20th century orchestral compositions Debussy's roiling, swirling La Mer has proved among the most durable. It is essentially a three-movement symphony without the conventional musical structures that make up the form: substituting the composer's own ideas and concepts for the familiar shapes of Allegro, Scherzo and Andante. Indeed, the first movement is a case study in shifting keys, meters and tempos that can be as treacherous as a riptide or undertow for the unwary musical mariner.

Ms. Mälkki took a bold, forceful approach to the opening movement, using careful control of meter to force the waves of sound to dance to her baton. This was a faster than usual tour of the three movements, sacrificing some lyricism on the altar of structure and musical efficiency. That said, it was exciting, with the Jeux de Vagues a particular standout. In the final Dialogue du vent et la mer, the taut structures of the opening movement paid off as Debussy's thematic ideas rolled in like a particularly welcome high tide. 

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