Finnish conductor makes sensational debut with Chicago Symphony

October 14, 2011

Conductor Susanna Mälkki and soloist J. Lawrie Bloom applaud composer Thea Musgrave folllowing the performance of her "Autumn Sonata" Thursday night at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

One certainly can’t say that Susanna Mälkki opted for the programming road most taken in her Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut.

The Finnish conductor led the CSO Thursday night in the U.S. premiere of a bass clarinet concerto, flanked that assignment with two challenging works by Charles Ives, and closed the evening with Richard Strauss’s epic tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra.

Mälkki, music director of Ensemble InterContemporain, managed to not only pull off each work on this demanding program with striking success but sparked the CSO to some of their finest playing of the year. With powerful, richly eloquent, and immaculately balanced performances, Mälkki’s sensational debut is easily the most impressive CSO podium bow of recent seasons.

Most attention Thursday night focused on Autumn Sonata, a bass clarinet concerto by Thea Musgrave, which was being heard in its belated American premiere.

Cast in six unbroken sections, the 1994 work takes inspiration from the haunting poems of the Austrian writer Georg Trakl, who died in a Polish hospital during the First World War. Befitting the concerto’s title, the music is autumnal, restless and dream-like, cast in a dark expressive vein with ominous militaristic shadows in the martial rhythms and percussion writing.

The solo line is closely woven with the undulating mystery of the orchestral fabric. There is a violently explosive march-like middle section (con furore), followed by a searching Lamentoso. Near the end a second offstage bass clarinet echoes the soloist’s line. Only the prominent use of the opening motif of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in the closing section seems a bit twee, distracting one from Musgrave’s own compelling musical argument. Otherwise Autumn Sonata is an effective work, evocative, concise (20 minutes), and smartly scored.

Resembling an antique gardening tool, the bass clarinet is not the most grateful instrument for a solo role, limited in range and expression. Yet the CSO’s J. Lawrie Bloom gave Musgrave’s concerto the highest possible advocacy, playing with seamless fluency and as much dark eloquence as the instrument can muster (John Bruce Yeh deftly provided the offstage clarinet Doppelganger). Under Mälkki’s tautly focused direction the CSO provided their colleague with close-knit support and the 83-year-old Scottish composer was on hand to share in the warm applause.

Mälkki flanked the concerto with two works of Charles Ives. The Unanswered Question led off the evening with Mälkki distilling a sense of timeless mystery and eliciting string playing of extraordinary concentration in the barely audible string phrases, even with outbursts from some clueless unmuffled coughers. The atmospheric offstage trumpet was perfectly judged, though the four flutes would have benefited from being placed in the seating behind the stage rather than in the far right lower balcony.

Ives’ Three Places in New England poses even more of an interpretive challenge, but Mälkki showed herself a most impressive hand in this repertoire, untangling Ives’ densest contrapuntal thickets and bringing out the nostalgic heartache imbedded in this music (here performed in the original version for large orchestra).

In “The ‘St. Gaudens’ in Boston Common” Mälkki elicited playing from the CSO strings that brought out the dark rumination and hymn-like glow. “Putnam’s Camp” is cast in Ives’ singular brand of raucous march tunes and clashing dissonance, and the conductor brought astounding clarity to Ives’ most massively scored, when-worlds-collide cacophony. “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” was aptly primeval and mysterious, with Mälkki underlining subtle scoring details like the celesta, and building inexorably to the grinding dissonant climax. So communicative and eloquent were these Ives performances that it made one appreciate the American master’s quirky genius anew.

As impressive as Mälkki’s direction was in the first half, the thrilling performance of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra after intermission was finer still. The 42-year-old Finn is a charismatic and dynamic podium presence, leading sans baton with her expressive hands and animated body language, not for self-regarding podium gymnastics but to draw out the music with full force and fervor.

In this CSO repertorial cornerstone, Mälkki directed a performance of lean brilliance and surging momentum in Strauss’s Nietzschean musical canvas. The celebrated opening Sunrise was majestic without undue bombast, and the string playing was especially gleaming and brilliant (Mälkki started her career as an acclaimed cellist). Strauss’s climaxes had remarkable sweep and resplendence, but Mälkki also provided laser-like clarity in the “Of Science” fugue and the coda with its questioning dialogue in different keys between winds and basses. Robert Chen’s violin solos in the waltzing dance of the Superman could have used a bit more swagger and the CSO’s new principal clarinet, Stephen Williamson, still sounds rather tentative in exposed passages.

But this was largely a gloriously played and exhilarating performance of Strauss’s tone poem, capping a concert that provided a highlight of the musical year. The CSO should sign Mälkki up for a two-week return engagement pronto.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.; 312-294-3000.

One Response to “Finnish conductor makes sensational debut with Chicago Symphony”

  1. Posted Oct 14, 2011 at 3:49 pm by Robert Summers

    Ms. Mälkki gave an overpowering performance last year with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a breath of welcomed fresh air. Your review of her performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra puts her at the top of my list to be the BSO’s next music directer.