Arts & Events

Susanna Mälkki Returns to Lead Symphony in Beethoven & Stravinsky

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday June 16, 2017 - 11:41:00 AM

Over the last few years Susanna Mälkki has become one of the most highly regarded young conductors on the international music scene. Mälkki, a native of Finland, returned to the Bay Area for a series of concerts June 9-11 with the San Francisco Symphony. On the program were two works by Igor Stravinsky – Scherzo fantastique (1907) and Le Sacre du printemps (1913) – plus Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15 (1795), featuring Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. I attended the Sunday matinee concert on June 11 at Davies Hall. 

Opening the program was an early work by Stravinsky, the Scherzo fantastique from 1907. This brief (11 minute) work may (or may not) be inspired by Stravinsky’s reading of Maurice Maeterlinck’s book Life of the Bees, which the composer once described as “a half-philosophical, half imaginative work which charmed me, as they say, head over heels.” There are indeed musical passages in this Scherzo fantastique that suggest the swarming and buzzing of bees. One brief passage even reminds us of Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous Flight of the Bumblebee; and we should note that Rimsky-Korsakov was Stravinsky’s mentor at the time the young Stravinsky composed his Scherzo fantastique. Suffice it to say that this work is full of orchestral color, perhaps especially in the solo for alto flute in the central portion. Conductor Mälkki effectively brought out the verve of this early work by Stravinsky. 

Next on the program was Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, a work that was not actually the first piano concerto Beethoven composed but rather the one he numbered as his First Piano Concerto when it was published in 1801. Beethoven himself played the piano at this work’s premiere in Vienna on December 18, 1795. As this concerto opens we hear soft strings and timpani, then a soft trumpet call, followed by a similar passage in forte. Undulations in the strings introduce a second subject in the remote key of F minor, and this subject undergoes key changes in constantly rising sequence. We must wait for more than 100 measures before the piano enters, and when it does, it plays a theme not heard at all in what precedes the piano’s entry. Beethoven, who played piano at this work’s premiere, seems to be emphasizing that the piano soloist is an independent, perhaps more than equal component in this concerto. However, having opened with an entirely new theme, Beethoven never returns to this theme. Instead, the piano embarks on swift runs over low orchestral accompaniment. A martial march ensues. Soft, small glissandi by the piano lead to a brilliant downward thrust by the piano at full fortissimo and a loud trumpet call, creating a moment of sheer theatrical effect. The first movement proceeds with three cadenzas written out by Beethoven, each more brilliant than the others, all performed with technical felicity and utmost sensitivity by Garrick Ohlsson.  

The second movement, marked Largo, is delicate in mood and texture, and it includes a lovely clarinet solo. There is considerable pathos in this slow movement. The third and final movement, a Rondo allegro, opens with a humorous take on military marches. The piano opens and is quickly joined by the orchestra, as a merry romp ensues, offering a bumptious but eminently memorable version of a military march. At the end, the piano seems to grow silent, providing a last sly poke in the eye of ‘respectable’ musical expectations. Throughout this entire First Piano Concerto by Beethoven, the combination of Garrick Ohlsson on piano and Susanna Mälkki as conductor kept the excitement level at a peak of listener enjoyment.  

After intermission Susanna Mälkki returned to lead the orchestra in Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). This work created a scandal when it premiered as a staged ballet by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on May 29, 1913. The Paris audience found Stravinsky’s musical evocation of pagan Russia’s celebration of Spring to be a barbarous monstrosity. As time went by, however, Le Sacre du printemps became recognized as a seminal work of Modernism. Its musical primitivism is somewhat akin to the influence of African sculpture on visual art.  

Le Sacre du printemps opens with a high-pitched bassoon solo that is apparently drawn from a Lithuanian folk tune. Elegantly played here by Stephen Paulson, this bassoon solo immediately establishes an eerie and exotic mood. Other woodwind and brass instruments join in to evoke the mystery of Spring’s renewal. The ensuing “Ballet of Adolescent Girls” features a vigorous rhythm to portray the stamping of feet in a primitive dance. Four trumpets intone a solemn chant against a little dance melody in the flutes. The section called “Spring Rounds” is introduced by a theme for unison clarinets and bass clarinets accompanied by trills in the flutes. “The Games of the Rival Tribes” bring on a section of competitive interaction between two groups, set in propulsive rhythms and rapidly changing meters. Then a vigorous theme for four tubas brings on the Sage, who consecrates the earth, after which a savage dance ensues. 

The second major section of Le Sacre du printemps opens with a portrait of a Spring night in pagan Russia. Musically, the harmonic colors are dark, gloomy, and mysterious. A winding and solemn theme is heard in the flutes as the dance of the “Mysterious Circle of Adolescents” ensues. When the ancestors are evoked, the music becomes ponderous and primeval, almost barbaric, full of heavy chords and savage thrusts. The music grows ever more feverish as the Chosen One singled out by Fate must dance to her death. The rhythms become enormously complex, full of drive, and the meters change with breathtaking rapidity. A frenzy is reached, and the work comes to a close with one last savage outburst from the orchestra. Throughout this work conductor Susanna Mälkki brought tremendous energy to the podium as she punched the air with outstretched arms, crouched low as if to wrench the music from the violins, then sprang upward to call for a fortissimo outburst from the full orchestra. Mälkki is definitely a major talent among conductors, and the Symphony responded to her leadership with a splendidly taut and i.nspired performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps.