"What Mälkki adds to the mix, though, is a gift for rhetoric that is at once sinuous and mathematical — an aural correlative to her clipped but balletic podium technique. Marking time in sharp-edged downbeats while eliciting fluid phrasing from the orchestra, she’s a swaying, swirling martinet."
“Oh to be in Finland, where the sunlight is clear and stark, the air is bracing and fresh, and the music-making partakes of all those qualities at once!
As travelogue, that formulation is a dose of pure fantasy (I myself have never so much as transferred through the Helsinki airport). But the musical part of it was reaffirmed yet again on Friday, June 9, when conductor Susanna Mälkki returned to Davies Symphony Hall to lead the San Francisco Symphony in a zesty, invigorating program of music by Stravinsky and Beethoven.
It was a characteristic undertaking for Mälkki, a play of light and not much shadow in which every detail of the music blazed forth in stark relief. Together with her penchant for strong-boned rhythms and crisp orchestral sonorities, the result was a display of forceful and almost pitilessly precise musicianship.
Is that really a Finnish thing? Well, these are qualities that Mälkki shares, to a greater or lesser extent, with such conductorial compatriots as Osmo Vänskä, Mikko Franck and especially Esa-Pekka Salonen.
What Mälkki adds to the mix, though, is a gift for rhetoric that is at once sinuous and mathematical — an aural correlative to her clipped but balletic podium technique. Marking time in sharp-edged downbeats while eliciting fluid phrasing from the orchestra, she’s a swaying, swirling martinet.
Those gifts came through most clearly after intermission, when she led the orchestra in a vivid, rousing account of “The Rite of Spring.” She leaned hard into Stravinsky’s instrumental explosions and off-kilter rhythmic strokes, spurring the musicians — the brass and percussion in particular — to ever greater displays of fury.
But that’s where any performance of “The Rite” begins. More striking and exciting, in its way, was Mälkki’s ability to illuminate fine-grained details of the score and to make those specifics add up to a reading of passion and insight. The busy woodwind work of the opening section, led by Stephen Paulson’s plangent bassoon solo, has rarely sounded so directed; the languid lilt of “Spring Rounds” and the hair-raising pause of suspense before the work’s crashing final chords derived their splendor from the clarity of Mälkki’s formulations.
Something similar could be said of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which preceded intermission with Garrick Ohlsson as the mighty, nimble soloist. As soon as Mälkki and the orchestra launched into the concerto’s opening strains, the audience understood that we were going to hear every note and phrase of the score in intimate detail …
Mälkki opened the program with a wonderful rarity, Stravinsky’s early “Scherzo fantastique,” Op. 3. This 11-minute orchestral showpiece is the work of a brilliant young innovator still finding his own voice, and it buzzes with the echoes of numerous predecessors — Mendelssohn, Wagner, Debussy and his influential teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov.
It’s also hard to avoid hearing foreshadowings of the ballet scores that were soon to come — especially “Petrushka,” which seems to lurk around every corner. Friday’s performance — the Symphony’s first since 1958, when the composer led it — was vivacious and utterly delightful.”
Joshua Kosman – SFGate
“Over the last few years Susanna Mälkki has become one of the most highly regarded young conductors on the international music scene. Mälkki, a native of Finland, returned to the Bay Area for a series of concerts June 9-11 with the San Francisco Symphony. On the program were two works by Igor Stravinsky – Scherzo fantastique (1907) and Le Sacre du printemps (1913) – plus Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15 (1795), featuring Garrick Ohlsson as soloist …
Opening the program was an early work by Stravinsky, the Scherzo fantastique from 1907. This brief (11 minute) work may (or may not) be inspired by Stravinsky’s reading of Maurice Maeterlinck’s book Life of the Bees, which the composer once described as “a half-philosophical, half imaginative work which charmed me, as they say, head over heels.” There are indeed musical passages in this Scherzo fantastique that suggest the swarming and buzzing of bees … Suffice it to say that this work is full of orchestral color, perhaps especially in the solo for alto flute in the central portion. Conductor Mälkki effectively brought out the verve of this early work by Stravinsky.
Next on the program was Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, a work that was not actually the first piano concerto Beethoven composed but rather the one he numbered as his First Piano Concerto when it was published in 1801 … Throughout this entire First Piano Concerto by Beethoven, the combination of Garrick Ohlsson on piano and Susanna Mälkki as conductor kept the excitement level at a peak of listener enjoyment.
After intermission Susanna Mälkki returned to lead the orchestra in Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) … Throughout this work conductor Susanna Mälkki brought tremendous energy to the podium as she punched the air with outstretched arms, crouched low as if to wrench the music from the violins, then sprang upward to call for a fortissimo outburst from the full orchestra. Mälkki is definitely a major talent among conductors, and the Symphony responded to her leadership with a splendidly taut and inspired performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps.”
James Roy MacBean – Berkeley Daily Planet