Arts & Events

Susanna Mälkki’s Greatness As A Conductor

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday June 12, 2018 - 10:30:00 AM

When a conductor puts together a program that is bold and wide-ranging, including works that are relatively unfamiliar to the audience, and succeeds in making each work stand out clearly and forcefully, that is a sure sign of greatness. Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki returned to Davies Hall this weekend to lead the San Francisco Symphony in just such a bold and wide-ranging program, and Ms. Mälkki showed once again her greatness as a conductor. For my money, Susanna Mälkki ought to be considered the front-runner to succeed Michael Tilson Thomas when he retires in 2010 as the San Francisco Symphony’s Music Director.  

In concerts on June 7-9, Susanna Mälkki led the Symphony in one notoriously difficult staple – Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto – and two relatively unfamiliar works – Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna Magica (2008) and Alexander Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy (1907). By the time the Saturday evening concert I attended was over, Susanna Mälkki had even won me over to appreciate Scriabin, whose other symphonic poems tend to drive me up the wall with their mysticism and post-Wagnerian pomposity. However, in Ms. Mälkki’s hands, Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy, the third in this composer’s trilogy of mystical symphonic poems, came off as surprisingly supple and full of unusual orchestral colors. There were moments of bombast, to be sure, but even these tended to be balanced by countervailing moments of sweetness. Moreover, in The Poem of Ecstasy Scriabin spared us his usual annoying habit of making each and every orchestral passage swell up voluptuously to an erotic climax, as if his music were the accompaniment to a global orgy of mystical eroticism.  

Susanna Mälkki also led a very convincing rendition of Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna Magica. Ms. Mälkki has spoken of the special relationship she has with her fellow female Finn Kaija Saariaho, with whom she has worked for almost twenty years. Drawing on this long experience, Susanna Mälkki succeeds in bringing out the magic of Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna Magica, with its densely textured and brilliantly colored orchestration. In Laterna Magica, a work inspired by filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s magisterial handling of light in his films, Kaija Saariaho creates a 20-minute work in which there is almost no hint of melody, except perhaps in short phrases on the xylophone, and various tempos give different aspects of texture and color to each section of a work that grows on the listener over time. In a highly percussive work, where xylophone, vibraphone, chimes, and drums lead the way, the strings generally provide texture, while the combined brass section offers punctuation marks setting off each and every section. 

Last but by no means least, we come to the work that actually opened the program – Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major. For this series of performances the soloist was Nikolai Znaider, a late replacement for Hilary Hahn, who is soon expecting the birth of her first child. Nikolai Znaider is widely known as both a conductor and violin soloist. He is currently Principal Guest Conductor of the Mariinsky Orchestra in Saint Petersburg, a post he has held since 2010, and he enjoys a special relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra as both conductor and violin soloist. Here in San Francisco Nikolai Znaider gave a robust yet finely nuanced rendition of Tchaikovsky’s notoriously difficult Violin Concerto. Under Susanna Mälkki’s direction, the tempos were neither too fast, as is often the case with other conductors of this work, nor was it unusually slow. Rather, this was a well-balanced interpretation, one where the listener never felt that the soloist and conductor were showing daredevil speed for its own sake, nor were they slowing things down to achieve a new and unusual effect. The audience clearly appreciated the sound musicianship of the Mälkki-Znaider team, and they gave both soloist and conductor a tumultuous ovation. As an encore Nikolai Znaider performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sarabande from Partita No. 2 in D minor.