Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki (above right) returned to guest conduct the SF Symphony last weekend, and though I tend to love her concerts, I wasn't going to attend this one because the program was Beethoven's Piano Concerto #1 and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Not being a big Beethoven fan and having been terribly disappointed in 2013 when Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the Stravinsky in 2013, this didn't sound like my cup of tea until I heard from an insider that the Rite of Spring was sounding sensational in rehearsal. So I attended the final Sunday matinee performance, and the insider was right, the Rite of Spring performance was off the charts, one of the most extraordinarily exciting musical performances of my concert going career. During the first half, the long, ambitious Beethoven Piano Concerto #1 was close to being interesting because Mälkki and the orchestra offered a musical reading full of intensity and verve, but the piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson (above left) gave a performance that seemed to be in another, more genteel, duller reality, completely competent but without an ounce of passion.
The concert started with Stravinsky's Opus 3 from 1907, a 10-minute Scherzo Fantastique that chirped along nimbly but didn't really go anywhere. The orchestra sounded wonderful in it, though, a harbinger of the full-out, virtuosic, communal masterpiece they conjured after intermission with The Rite of Spring. Conductor Mälkki somehow managed to establish a musical through-line in the jagged, disjointed, episodic ballet music that never wavered. The transitions in dynamics between fortissimo and pianissimo in the same phrase were seamless and breathtaking, and her sense of rhythm was sure and steady while allowing a space for crazed offbeats and shrieks.
What was most impressive is that the performance managed to strip away decades of interpretation and make the piece sound brand new and genuinely wild. For the first time, the shock of what this music must have sounded like in 1913 came through loud and clear, and at certain moments (I'm thinking of the end of Part 1), it became almost unbearably exciting. To make a standard piece of the repertory feel vital and brand new is a special gift. Susanna Mälkki did the same thing in a performance of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony a couple of years ago. She is now one of my handful of favorite living conductors in the world, and I hope she does not object to the photo above of her looking a bit crazed after that mind-blowing performance on Sunday. She certainly looks like I felt after hearing it.