NEW YORK, NY.-
Its auditions season at the New York Philharmonic and not for a seat among its players. With Jaap van Zweden, the orchestras music director, having announced in September that he will depart in 2024, every guest conductor now takes the podium with the search for his replacement looming.
This game of Fantasy Baton is complicated by the fact that the Philharmonic is wandering while David Geffen Hall is renovated, playing sometimes unfamiliar repertory in unfamiliar (and perhaps uncongenial) spaces. But the fall brought good reviews for Dalia Stasevska, Simone Young, Giancarlo Guerrero and Dima Slobodeniouk.
No guest so far, though, has received a platform like Susanna Mälkki got Thursday. Making her fourth appearance with the Philharmonic, she is the only outsider to be granted one of the orchestras four dates this year at Carnegie Hall, its home until Lincoln Center was built in the 1960s and where it had not appeared since 2015. (Van Zweden leads the other three Carnegie concerts, this spring.)
The chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Mälkki presided over a program tailor-made for a Finnish conductors tryout with an ensemble across the Atlantic: two beefy, brassy American works followed after intermission by one of Finlands most famous symphonic exports, Sibelius Fifth.
Adolphus Hailstorks 1984 overture An American Port of Call depicts Norfolk, Virginia, as a mixture of bustling activity and sweet nocturnal relaxation. Mälkki brought out piquant touches, like some characterful wails of clarinet, and the tidal undercurrent of the low strings at certain moments even anticipated the grand swan call climax of the Sibelius.
She patiently, persuasively built that symphonys fitful first movement, and the whole work had a feeling of straightforwardness, lightness and modesty; neither tempos nor emotions were milked; the performance was more lovely than intense. Ensemble sonorities in the winds and brasses were clean, if not pristine or particularly atmospheric although Judith LeClair, the orchestras principal bassoon, brought gorgeously buttery foreboding to her important solo.
A former section cellist before embarking on her conducting career, Mälkki was unafraid of encouraging some aggression in the strings: a few forceful accents in the first movement and, most arresting, a slapping spiccato burr in the double basses during the stirring swan motif in the finale. But the chords at the end, in some performances slashing and stark, were here warm, resonant, full, even mellow.
John Adams Saxophone Concerto is almost the same half-hour length as the symphony, but felt far longer Thursday. The distinguished soloist, Branford Marsalis, made a tender sound in some lullabylike passages, but often Adams virtuosically burbling fabric of alto-sax notes seemed to vanish into the dense orchestral textures sometimes inaudible, sometimes just bland in color and bite. Occasionally rousing for some of this composers trademark peppy rhythmic chugging, and a fun section riffing on The Rite of Spring, the 2013 work as a whole felt muted and glum, with a tinkling celesta nagging.
This was my first time hearing the piece live, so I cant be sure whether these balance and energy problems are common. But the St. Louis Symphony Orchestras recording under David Robertson with Timothy McAllister, for whom the concerto was composed, as soloist makes a far better, more seductive and varied case for it than Thursdays performance.
As for the Philharmonics future, Gustavo Dudamel whom the orchestras CEO, Deborah Borda, recruited in her last job to lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducts two weeks of Schumann in March. He and others appearing in the coming months, like Jakub Hrusa, Santtu-Matias Rouvali, Tugan Sokhiev and Long Yu, could all be considered music director contenders.
Mälkki deserves to be on that list, too. But perhaps the best indication of the field will come soon, when the orchestra announces its lineup for next season, its return to the renovated Geffen Hall. Game on.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times