Arts & Events

New: Finnish Conductor Excels with San Francisco Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday December 02, 2014 - 10:42:00 AM

Susanna Mälkki, who was recently appointed Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, returned to San Francisco Symphony to lead the orchestra in two performances, Saturday and Sunday, November 29-30. Featured on the program were Béla Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto with pianist Jeremy Denk, Johannes Brahms’s Second Symphony, and a short piece, The White Peacock, by early 20th century American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes. 

The program opened with Mälkki conducting The White Peacock, a five-minute work by Griffes originally performed by an ochestra accompanying a solo dance by ballerina Margit Leeras wearing a peacock outfit. Oddly, The White Peacock’s premiere in 1919 was in a New York City movie theatre, sandwiched between screenings of a Civil War romance drama, Secret Service, and the Mack Sennet comedy Hearts and Flowers. Strongly influenced by Debussy, Griffes infused the score of The White Peacock with a freedom from fixed tonalities and a perfumed exoticism. There are lovely exchanges between orchestra and flute and orchestra and clarinet. On hearing this excellent work, one wished that Griffes, who died in 1920, had lived longer and composed more. 

Jeremy Denk, a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship awardee, performed as soloist with the orchestra in Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto. Bartók, who emigrated to the USA in 1940, wrote his Third Piano Concerto in 1945, the last year of his life, and did not live to hear its premiere in 1946 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. In San Francisco, pianist Jeremy Denk gave a robust interpretation of this vibrant work, and the orchestra seemed inspired by the energetic conducting of Susanna Mälkki.  

Unlike Bartók’s first two piano concertos, which begin aggressively, the Third begins gently, with the piano setting forth a meditative melody over a quiet orch-estral accompaniment. This is Bartók sounding like Debussy. Only here there are hints of Hungarian folk tunes. This opening movement, marked Allegretto, exudes a peaceful and nostalgic bent, ending with a lovely exchange between flute and piano. The second movement, marked Adagio religioso, is in effect a hymn of thanks. (Bartók’s illness was in a temporary state of remission when he wrote this movement.) Jeremy Denk’s piano took the lead in this hymn and the orchestral strings provided the connecting tissue. Midway through this movement, Bartók inserted one of his nightmusic interludes, comprised of twittering birdcalls and the buzzing of insects. This too seems something for which Bartók, ever sensitive to nature, was thankful. When the hymn resumes, the choral song is now in the orchestra and the piano offers the rhapsodic accompaniment. 

The third and final movement, marked Allegro vivace, offers a bright and cheery fugue, interspersed with a sweet dance rhythm with hints of a waltz. Bartók, who welcomed the end of World War II, and happy that his family had safely survived the war, brings his Third Piano Concerto to a vibrant, optimistic close. As pianist, Jeremy Denk gave a spirited performance, with only some excessive head lollings and dramatic head snaps to detract, or should I say, distract, from his excellent playing. As for conductor Susanna Mälkki, she led the orchestra in an energetic interpretation of Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto. Conducting without a baton, Mällki used her expressive hands to shape each musical phrase. 

After intermission, the orchestra returned to play Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 in D-major. Where Brahms’s First Symphony, fourteen years in the making, was an epic, Brahms’s Second Symphony, created in a mere four months, was an idyll. The work opens with three notes in the low strings, out of which primary material Brahms built his entire symphony. From this initial grouping of notes, the com-poser spun out a seemingly endless string of gorgeous melodies, each melody sweeping expansively into the next. There are mood swings in this movement as the music shifts from a sunny disposition to a somewhat cloudy wistfulness, then back again.  

The second movement, marked Adagio non troppo, is a densely concentrated piece of music in which two emotional states are explored, one meditative and searching, the other full of optimism. Under the leadership of conductor Mälkki, the orchestra gave a probing, intensely passionate reading of this movement, revealing all its deep emotional underpinnings. Even more than the first movement, this second movement was, for me, the highlight of Brahms’s Second Symphony.  

The third movement, an Allegretto grazioso, is a lighthearted, almost superficial piece of music, in the middle of which the composer inserts a gaily scampering dance theme. After the pensive probings of the previous movement, this Allegretto grazioso shifts back to the sunny side of life. The fourth and final movement begins, as did the opening movement, with the same three notes, as if calling attention to the extreme craftsmanship that enabled Brahms to build this entire symphony out of very simple primary material. Though beginning in a hush, the finale quickly breaks out in a shout, and the orchestra resolutely explores the clouds that lurk behind even the sunniest skies. Conductor Susanna Mälkki, her hair drawn back in a ponytail, her lithe body arched like a tautly strung bow, launched into the spirited passages of this finale with an electrical charge of energy. And the orchestra, drawing inspiration from her conducting, gave its all. Susanna Mälkki is definitely a conductor with a bright future.