Susanna Mälkki made a big impact on her debut at New York’s Mostly Mozart festival, conducting the CBSO in two works by Kaija Saariaho, the festival composer-in-residence.
“Add another name to the roster of dynamic conductors emerging from Finland: Susanna Mälkki,” wrote the New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini.
“Leading the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, from England, in two Mostly Mozart Festival programs at the Rose Theater, Ms. Mälkki, 39, fully met the expectations that had built up around her.”
The CBSO’s visit to the Lincoln Centre’s Broadway venue included the first three US performances of Saariaho’s dramatic oratorio La Passion de Simone, based on the life of Simone Weil and featuring renowned American soprano Dawn Upshaw. The orchestra gave the UK premiere, also with Upshaw, at London’s Barbican Centre last year with the American conductor Robert Spano.
While noting that “As always, Ms. Saariaho’s orchestral writing is wondrous,” the New York Times had nothing specific to say about the CBSO’s contribution, although according to Alan Lockwood in the New York Sun, “The CBSO was at Ms Mälkki’s beck and call in an acute, nuanced performance.”
Commenting that Mälkki, who has worked extensively with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and is now music director of the Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain, seemed to be approaching the work as though it were by a contemporary composer, Anthony Tommasini observed: “Here was a group of musicians, inspired by an adventurous conductor, approaching the Eroica as if it were some wild and slightly baffling new piece.
“The first movement had breathless energy. True, there were trade-offs, like some sputtering passages that threatened to unravel. But they scarcely mattered, for all the spontaneity and excitement.”
Turning to the Saariaho concerto, he added: “Ms. Mälkki had these orchestra musicians from England sounding like definitive Saariaho interpreters. There was no obvious thematic rationale for pairing Notes on Light and the Eroica . Yet they somehow belonged together. And who cared, when the performances were so risky and exhilarating?”
However, a second reviewer from the [ITAL]Sun, Fred Kirshnit, was less convinced by the Beethoven, describing it as a run-through. Though he praised the CBSO, saying “the ensemble has a distinctive blending of string and wind sound that gives the impression of burnished wood”, he was less convinced by Malkki’s hard-driven interpretation.
He concluded: “The scherzo bounced along nicely, but Ms. Mälkki’s decision to begin the finale without pause backfired, as the ensemble was not in sync for the first few notes. Little ragged edges began to wear thin — the horns were bright but not always accurate — and the last 100 measures or so were more chaotic than disciplined. Not a bad performance, but hardly one for the ages.”