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Finnish conductor proves her mastery

by Philip Campbell

Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki returned to DSH. Photo: Simon Fowler, courtesy SFS
Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki returned to DSH. Photo: Simon Fowler, courtesy SFS  

Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki returned to Davies Symphony Hall last week to lead the San Francisco Symphony in an exciting program featuring Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major with violinist Nikolaj Znaider, and the first SFS performances of compatriot Kaija Saariaho's absorbing "Laterna Magica."

Throughout the season the SFS has welcomed international conductors presenting music from their native lands. Malkki finished the guest list, leading the orchestra for the brief but kaleidoscopically packed Saariaho "Laterna Magica" ("The Magic Lantern"), which alludes to the autobiography of the same name by film director Ingmar Bergman.

Malkki bookended the local premiere with Znaider's whirlwind traversal of the mighty Tchaikovsky and a thrilling Scriabin "The Poem of Ecstasy." It was a big night for the dynamic conductor, which also solidified enthusiastic support from SFS audiences. Malkki proves her mastery of varied scores and composers with every visit, and visibly elicits unanimously sympathetic and precise orchestral response. The musicians are clearly willing to follow her baton-free lead.

Violinist Nikolaj Znaider. Photo: Lars Gundersen, courtesy SFS  

For many, the biggest takeaway of the evening was Znaider's feverish Tchaikovsky Concerto, but I was equally impressed by Malkki's gracious support of the soloist and her strong handling of the orchestral backdrop. The violinist's stratospheric tone was weighted beautifully by the richly majestic backdrop.

Kaija Saariaho's aptly named "Laterna Magica" was received with less audience fervor, but the response was still positive, quite a compliment for the relatively brief but mysteriously eventful score. It is a pleasing piece, characteristic of Saariaho's alluring sound world. Glittering orchestration with shifting flashes of light and color and the surprising introduction of words spoken into their instruments by the musicians combine to wonderful effect. Ingmar Bergman's fascination with contrasts is readily apparent.

It is said Alexander Scriabin told a friend, "Look straight into the eye of the sun!" when listening to his "The Poem of Ecstasy." Malkki sensibly took a less reckless approach in her careful molding of the sumptuous work. The sense of wild abandon and cosmic exaltation was there, but no one went blind observing the orchestra under her energetic control. It was a breathtaking rendition that prompted one audience member to say, "I liked that better than 'The Firebird.'"

In her debut year as Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and second season as Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, Malkki has also been touring extensively after concluding her four-year tenure as principal guest conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra. In recent seasons she conducted the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Kaija Saariaho's "L'amour de loin." She was also music director of the prestigious Ensemble Intercontemporain from 2006 to 2013. She made her SFS debut in 2012, and we hope to see much more of her in future seasons.

The Russians are coming!

This week the SFS is transforming the stage at DSH to Tsarist Russia when Michael Tilson Thomas and the SFS present semi-staged performances of the Mussorgsky epic "Boris Godunov," featuring the composer's original orchestration, June 14-15 & 17. The fascinating story of the rise and fall of the title character is filled with magnificent choruses and stirring solo vocals. Mussorgsky's earthy and raw orchestration vividly depicts the anguish of the 16th-century Tsar. "House of Cards" is a romp in the park by comparison.

The production is the brainchild of MTT, and directed by James Darrah with the same creative team that collaborated previously on highly successful productions including "Peer Gynt" in 2013, a darkly memorable "Peter Grimes" in 2014, and most recently, the joyously exuberant Bernstein, Comden & Green "On the Town" in 2016.

Between 2018 San Francisco Pride, "The Ring" at San Francisco Opera, and big bad Boris' tremendously dramatic appearance at Davies Hall, June really is bustin' out all over.


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