Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Susanna Mälkki Conducts the San Francisco Symphony

One of the unfortunate traditions of Western classical music is old-fashioned sexism. It wasn't very long ago that the only women allowed to play in orchestras were harpists, so there is a lot of catching up to do, particularly when it comes to female conductors and composers getting a chance. The 43-year-old Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki (above) started as a cellist and transitioned to conducting at the beginning of this century, specializing in contemporary music including such operas as Ades's Powder Her Face and Kaija Saariaho's La Passion de Simone. In fact, she was the first woman to ever conduct at La Scala only last year. (Click here for an interesting interview with Mälkki by local writer Cedric Westphal.)

Her conducting debut with the San Francisco Symphony last week involved an all-20th century program that was fascinating, particularly the first half. The concert started with some French avant-garde spectral music, Modulations from Les Espaces acoustiques by Gérard Grisey, who died suddenly of an aneurysm at age 52 in 1998. The twenty-minute piece was written for a chamber orchestra of 30, and at first its delicate shifting soundscape rather bored me but the music got progressively stranger and more interesting until by the end I was ready to hear the whole 90-minute, six-movement work complete. Now that would be some adventurous programming. The performance sounded great.

This was followed by Prokofiev's barnburner of a piano concerto, the third, with the portly 63-year-old Cuban-American pianist Horacio Gutiérrez as soloist. He's had a successful career that spans over four decades but this was my first time seeing him live. The performance started off a little shaky with the orchestra on one wavelength and the at times drowned out Gutiérrez on another. Somewhere in the middle of the first movement, though, they joined forces for a lively, tumultuous, exciting performance that made the music sound new and completely different than any version I have ever heard. The obligatory standing ovation was deserved for a change.

The second half featured Sibelius' First Symphony from 1899 when he was trying to write a Tchaikovsky symphony, but he failed, and most of it ends up sounding like eccentric and original Sibelius after all. The orchestra gave a rousing performance and I hope management asks Mälkki back.

For a discussion of sartorial matters at the concert, click here for Lisa Hirsch's musings.

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