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Mälkki Conducts New York Philharmonic with Violinist Baiba Skride

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, January 14, 2018

The New York Philharmonic welcomed busy Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki to the podium and Latvian solo violinist Baiba Skride, for a stimulating program beginning with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major.

While it may be notable that a major orchestral concert is presided over in 2018 by a female conductor at all (a glass ceiling still being dismantled), it was quite un-notable that the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s famously challenging concerto is a woman, as the 1889 local premiere was given by the New York Symphony, the Philharmonic’s precursor, with violinist Maud Powell. James Keller’s amusing program notes quoted a critic of the time as saying “It was a treat to hear a woman play the violin so well…”

Susanna Mälkki conducts the New York Philharmonic with violinist Baiba Skride; photo by Chris Lee/New York Philharmonic.

It is interesting that the piece was received coolly by its original dedicatee, the violinist Leopold Auer. He later described it as technically problematic to play, and the piece’s apparent difficulty could be sensed in Skride’s performance. Skride employed a generous tonal palette and expressive command of Tchaikovsky’s merciless solo part, although in the first movement especially, she grappled enough with intonation to betray the awkwardness in Tchaikovsky’s demands on the player.

Mälkki and soloist had an easy, collaborative rapport, and Skride paced her performance carefully, with ample reserves in store to sail into the energetic finale. In the long first movement’s mournfully yearning strains, she drew listeners in with caressing, pillowy tones. As the violin’s melodic flourishes reached ever higher into the stratosphere, Tchaikovsky seems to be exploring the frayed edges of nervous expression. Skride dazzled in the dizzying cadenza’s teetering tightrope walk of harmonics and glissandos.

The plaintive second movement was beautifully drawn, with delicately played dialogue between soloist and woodwinds, and the high drama of the third movement was riveting. Mälkki’s sharp attention to structure, and Skride’s boundless energy, built to spectacular effect.

Susanna Mälkki conducts the New York Philharmonic; photo by Chris Lee/New York Philharmonic.

Mälkki led with a lucid, spirited baton, and concise, considered gestures. Her experience as an opera conductor was on display in the accompanied-recitative-like passages, tricky to coordinate with the violin solo. Occasionally she might have imparted more meaning and intent from the orchestra’s punctuating chords, but one appreciated her graceful ability to step into the background and let the violinist shine in the spotlight when appropriate.

Following intermission, New York received its first performance of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 2005 concert overture Helix. The composer described it as a “celebratory and direct overture-like piece,” although its effect seemed less festive and more pedantic. Some intriguing color combinations (a duet for piccolo and contra-bassoon) and angular, kaleidoscopic harmony were enjoyable. However, an oppressive, constantly pulsing timpani and bass line threatened tedium. The piece began stodgily, but advanced viscerally into a machine-like onslaught climaxing abruptly, in the manner of a head-on collision.

The great French Impressionist Claude Debussy’s “symphonic sketches” La Mer (The Sea, from 1905) was a groundbreaking work in its day, a new kind of instrumental creation, neither purely absolute music, nor programmatic music in the Romantic sense. Debussy also bucked the traditions of how form and texture should play out orchestrally, and created a whole new range of possibilities that composers — especially including Hollywood film composers — have drawn on ever since. The score is like a plush Impressionist painting that looks more evocative from farther away, with rippling gestures that move through the orchestra to three-dimensional effect. The strings accent a chord, echoed by a burning swell in the horns. The layers upon layers of different rhythms stacking, rising, evolving.

Mälkki coaxed maximum virtuosity from the Philharmonic musicians, with heedful attention to dynamics, tight sense of time and tempo, and a clear vision for the entire canvas, brought Debussy’s lavish creation into crisp focus.

The New York Philharmonic in concert at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, on January 11-13, 2018. Susanna Mälkki, conductor; Baiba Skride, violin.

TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto

ESA-PEKKA SALONEN  Helix

DEBUSSY  La Mer

Cover: Susanna Mälkki conducts the New York Philharmonic; photo by Chris Lee/New York Philharmonic.


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