Music of Salonen and Debussy provide the highlights in Mälkki’s Philharmonic program

Fri Jan 12, 2018 at 1:54 pm
Susanna Mälkki conducted the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Susanna Mälkki conducted the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

“Warhorse” is a term of art in classical music, used to describe a piece on a concert program that is well known and dependable–something that delivers expected pleasures with no surprises.

Expectations can be a problem though–not in that they go unfulfilled, but that they are all too easy to fulfill just by appearing on the program. Showing up is not 80% of success in classical music.

That was the issue Thursday night in David Geffen Hall for half of the New York Philharmonic’s latest subscription program. Two warhorses—Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Debussy’s La Mer—surrounded the local premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Helix. In front of this excellent orchestra were violin soloist Baiba Skride and guest conductor Susanna Mälkki.

That’s more than enough talent to take any warhorse and make it memorable. But the concerto performance in the first half never felt more than routine. On this level, that means glossy, skilled execution and attention to detail. But with these artists one fairly expects more.

Photo: Chris Lee

Photo: Chris Lee

The Tchaikovsky concerto is one of the most beautiful in the repertory; it’s fundamentally about a beautiful sound and a beautiful line. All that was there in Skride’s playing—she maintained a pace that allowed one’s ear to linger on every phrase. Skride is something like the pluperfect violin soloist, her sound so alluring that one would be happy just to hear her play long tones with rising and falling dynamics.

The Philharmonic showed their agility and professional energy. Other than that, nobody had much to say about anything. The exception was principal clarinetist Anthony McGill, whose dialogue with Skribe in the second movement was exquisite.

Mälkki is not only one of the finest conductors on the scene, but a conducting star in the way of the mid-20th century era of great maestros. She is unmatched for podium presence, projecting an assured authority that has an uncanny. almost mesmerizing effect.

The remaining program gave Mälkki and the musicians the chance to show some real thinking and verve. This came through the switch-up of putting the “overture,” Helix, at the start of the second half.

Indeed, it belonged there. Helix is a clear homage and response to Debussy’s sound world, using bits of phrases and some specific orchestration from the likes of La Mer and other orchestral music. It’s not among Salonen’s best work–tightening of the material could make it more effective–but it does burst forth with his characteristic extroversion.

Helix was a clever lead-in to La Mer. The view Mälkki and the Philharmonic showed Thursday was that the great proportions, the massive ebb and flow of the music that builds momentum to each climax, came in sections. This was strong and effective, setting passages in each movement in a dialogue with each other.

Mälkki built the rising tensions in a way that paid off in perfect terraces of dynamics—the slight pulling back in tempo steeled the musicians, and the audience, for the subsequent pushes into Debussy’s grand depths.

This program repeats 2 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday


One Response to “Music of Salonen and Debussy provide the highlights in Mälkki’s Philharmonic program”

  1. Posted Jan 15, 2018 at 1:29 pm by Cliff

    I’m a 51 yr old guy who has attended hundreds of “classical” concerts and hundreds of concerts from other genres…jazz, rock, blues, etc. I attended Saturday Jan 13th’s concert at Geffen with a woman who had never seen a classical concert before, not a quartet or even a piano recital.

    Maybe Sat’s performance was different than the performance described in the previous review. The Violin Concerto was sublime. I observed many listeners with tears in their eyes, choked up emotionally upon its resolution. My friend was in tears and I was choked up as well. I felt very happy for her that she could experience such a truly special concert her first time. She’s hooked!

    The performance was one of the most fluid, textured, perfectly executed, inspired and moving concerts I have ever seen. I was not intimate with the piece going into it, had no idea who B. Skride is, nor did I know she was loaned a Stratovarius. The tones and sounds she got out of that instrument rattled my bones. After researching on Sunday and discovering it was a unique instrument, I learned this night that a Strat (not the guitar) in the right hands is a miracle and that one CAN hear the difference even above the volume of a full orchestra. Truly.The bass tones, the high notes screamed and soothed at the same time. Not being dramatic. Her technical prowess is obvious but the scales and riffs flowed like electricity through the rhythms and tones and base established the Philharmonic. I heard nothing mundane or predictable… and “nobody had much to say about anything”…i’m sure that may mean something to the professional listener but to me, I have no idea what that could possibly mean. The sections were playing off each other, the tones rich and mixed and moving around the stage…it was a great achievement by the conductor and especially the incredible musicians.

    Maybe it’s always better to go into a performance with no idea what to expect. However, I didn’t know what to expect with the second piece and it gave quite a contrast to the Violin Concerto. While the percussion and bass played off each other very well, the actual composition was heavy and mechanical and reminded me of watching the news these days…not why I was there. Its was a heavy heavy piece contrasted against the mind blowing freedom expressed 15 minutes before. Again, Im sure the professional listener and more educated know about why the piece was selected and I definitely appreciate learning about that, but from a purely newbies perspective, the overall concert experience was brought down by the contemporary heaviness of the composition…the orchestra must have played it brilliantly as Im sure they delivered the intent of the composer.

    I didn’t care about Le Mer. I wondered how the second piece could sound more russian than the first and I was distracted by how I felt about my date at that moment. The emotion of that first piece, well, lets say it really brought out some great feelings between us. Amazing show. I will always remember it and will seek out concerts featuring Baiba and look forward to listening to concerts conducted by Susanna Mälkki. She was great. I want to take my 12 yr old daughter to listen and observe inspired women in action!

    I love you NY Philharmonic…really, I do!

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