Susanna Mälkki conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Griffes, Bartók, and Brahms, with Jeremy Denk, Piano

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Susanna Mälkki. Photo Roni Rekomaa.

Susanna Mälkki. Photo Roni Rekomaa.

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, November 29, 2014

Susanna Mälkki, conductor
Jeremy Denk, piano

Griffes – The White Peacock, Opus 7, No. 1 (1915/1919)
Bartók – Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945)
Brahms – Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877)

I had several motives in attending this concert. Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki is a fast rising star in the classical world, recently appointed Music Director of the Helsinki Philharmonic. I was eager to hear the rarely performed Griffes tone poem, a brilliant programming move. (We need to experience more “A” pieces from obscure composers of the past, I frequently argue.) And I was curious to see how Jeremy Denk would interact with Mälkki, since both musicians are of the brisk, sparky sort. The concert did not disappoint.

Susanna Mälkki is an electrical live wire masquerading as a “girl.” She strides onstage, a pant-suited blonde willow, all cheer and energy. From the audience sitting immediately behind, Mälkki’s hair deceptively suggests the gravitas of Nadia Boulanger—a dignified and proper chignon. But her face is framed by mobile bangs, which flap vigorously and slam around like punctuation, the moment she springs into action. Mälkki’s girlishness is deceptive. She conducts without baton but makes up for missing leverage by rearing back with her wrist twice before each downbeat, like a baseball pitcher—then strikes like a cobra! Some conductors lift the massed sound heavily skyward with their arms. Mälkki zaps it!

A season or two ago, I heard Mälkki lead a streamlined Sibelius Fifth, which seemed to miss the cumulative sustaining power needed to bring out its mystery and timelessness. So I feared for the Griffes White Peacock, which is as close to being a second Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun as any music you will encounter. But the performance was as sensuous as you could have wished. If you ever wonder what musical dripping sounds like, this is your piece. Just as Debussy’s notion evokes sexy afternoon breezes, and Sibelius’ Scene with Cranes an utter stillness, Griffes’ peacock seems to float along in thickly hanging, overripe gardens, where nature oozes and ripens. The surging eroticism is palpable. And it reflects Griffes’ personal life as a gay establishment figure of the day, just then embarking on a love affair with a New York City married policeman!

Griffes’ mood setting was followed next by the Bartók Third Piano Concerto, played incandescently by Jeremy Denk. Denk looks like a cross between a greyhound and a secret police torturer. (Chicagoans will recognize Rahm Emmanuel in this description!) And he did not disappoint. Both he and Mälkki were on the same page, deferring to each other vigorously with expressions of sheer snark!

I’ve always found this concerto a puzzle, though. It is melodic but nearly totally anodyne. I defy anyone actually to remember a tune from it before the finale. I played it four times this morning—and still go “Huh?” If it weren’t for the final movement’s turn into “going Hungarian,” I doubt it would be the classic it is. But it is beautifully constructed, has just enough spiky octave passages to enliven a pianist like Denk, and slams home beautifully with Magyar folk rhythm. If anyone can rescue the piece from cocktail piano, it is this pair.

The Brahms Second Symphony is by now a survivor. You can do anything to it, and it works. But that doesn’t mean that you should…nor does it mean you should do nothing to it. I would never accuse Susanna Mälkki of being an boring conductor. But she does seem to stick to the notes in the score more than to the music itself. Under her leadership, the San Francisco Symphony gave a beautifully polished, brisk reading. The audience found it exciting. But the music is more than dappled trees and shadows, in this case viewed rather briskly in passing. There is darkness and growling brass power in it, too, and in the slow movement a sort of creepy, nearly ecclesiastical ascetic gloom. This was missing.

It is a new day in music, in any case. Women have stormed and taken the last remaining hill in the war to be heard—and now command the podium as effectively as male conductors. So now it is their turn to be criticized—since the essential problem of classical music remains: In pop music, Elvis performed Elvis and was presumably authentic. But Griffes, Bartók and Brahms, like all dead composers, merely left instructions. Who on earth gets them right? That is always the question…

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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