Review: Susanna Mälkki Conducts LA Phil in Program of Knussen and Beethoven

December 8, 2019 | By | Category: Classical Music and Opera
LA Phil Principal Guest Conductor Susanna Mälkki / Photo courtesy of LA Phil

On a cloudy, rainy Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, the Finnish conductor and Principal Guest Conductor of the LA Phil Susanna Mälkki led the orchestra in three works: Flourish With Fireworks and the Violin Concerto by the late British composer, Oliver Knussen, and the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, “Eroica,” by Beethoven.

Knussen’s Flourish is just what the title implies: a four-minute orchestral outburst. It was composed for Michael Tilson Thomas’ (MTT) first concert as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). According to Knussen, “The music is built from the initials of the LSO (A, E-flat, G) and MTT (E, B, B). But why the title? Flourish can mean “a luxuriant growth or profusion,” which in this case could be of music; “showiness in the doing of something”; “fanfare” or “a sudden burst,” all of which would apply to this work which pops like fireworks and then is over just as quickly.

After the Flourish, Mälkki was joined onstage by the Canadian-born, Los Angeles-raised violinist Leila Josefowicz for the Knussen Violin Concerto. Josefowicz is a champion of modern music for the violin and showed not only her technical command of the instrument, but her ability to tackle a very demanding contemporary concerto. The result was both musical and performance art as she put her whole body and facial expressions into the piece, making it not only about the music, but about the performer as well. In doing so, she captivated the audience and elicited applause not only from the audience, but from the musicians in the orchestra as well. Mälkki showed her prowess too, not only by conducting a difficult work, but also by doing so seamlessly with the soloist.

The second half of the concert was devoted to the Eroica symphony. What more can be said about this revolutionary work that hasn’t been said for hundreds of years? There have been few pieces in the annals of Western music that have had the effect that Beethoven’s symphony has. It is a thoroughly inspired outpouring of the heroic and the grief-stricken, all emotions and more Beethoven felt about Napoleon from his heroic rise to his self-proclaimed status as Emperor. The music is among the most emotionally wrenching and glorious in the Western canon.

And what more can a conductor do with Beethoven’s third symphony that hasn’t been done before? Interestingly, and surprisingly, Mälkki put her own mark on the symphony. There were places where she paused between phrases just long enough to take a breath before commencing another emotionally draining passage. She kept the timpanist (Eduardo Meneses) on the quiet side until she — and Beethoven — needed to make a statement. The third movement was quite brisk, but not too much so, and the three-horn part in the trio was played perfectly, led by Principal Jaclyn Rainey. Mälkki jumped right into the Finale before any audience members could clap (many in the audience clapped after the first two movements). Mälkki then put the finishing touches on a polished performance of this great symphony with an exuberant finale to the delight of everyone in attendance.

—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA

Visit www.laphil.com.

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