Both Felix Mendelssohn’s Concerto in D minor for violin, piano, and strings and his Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Op. 21, composed when he was but 13 and 17, were given dashing interpretations by conductor Susanna Mälkki—the former with violinist Joshua Bell, and pianist Jeremy Denk in the Tanglewood Shed on August 21, 2010. Revealing the brilliant portent of Mendelssohn’s childhood and giving a critical perspective of his growth into a worthy Beethoven successor came in the second half of the program, dedicated to Beethoven’s music. Here, Bell’s performance of Beethoven’s Romance No. 2 in F major, Op. 50 for violin and orchestra, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat, Op. 60, offered striking contrasts in substance and mood.
We witnessed in this concert both that wild tempos in the hands of virtuoso players can stir excitement in the absence of great musical substance and that frustration can come when a great orchestra, accustomed to male conductors, faces a woman on its podium. Along with the revelations and discoveries in this provocative concert came interesting questions of orchestral professionalism and leadership that bumped against the patriarchal values constraining the careers of female conductors.
Susanna Mälkki, substituting for James Levine, could hardly appear more different than the BSO’s recuperating music director. Where he is confined to his chair, limited in the range of his gestures, she is a lithe, graceful, youthful presence on the podium. Where he is cerebral, preferring subtle gestures of the baton, she is “a conducting animal” of the Gustavo Dudamel species who expresses ideas and emotions with her fingers, hands, face, hair, torso, and legs. Where he is ambiguous in his directions, pulling from each individual player the best that they think he wants from them, she is vigorously direct and steadfast, even in the face of active resistance to her tempos and dynamic indications. Where he is a male conductor at the pinnacle of his career (notwithstanding his physical infirmities), she is a modern woman on her way up, unencumbered by anything but the preferences and prejudices of a tradition-ridden profession.
The daring acceleration with which Mälkki addressed the ethereal beginning of Midsummer Night’s Dream appeared to confuse the orchestra, which held back. She increased the amplitude of her hand and arm movements. Still they held back. She assumed a military posture, employing strong vertical indications to signal the downbeats of the 2/4 meter and pulling the second-beat accents in the succeeding passage with dramatic up-lifts. The beat couldn’t have been clearer, but the orchestra was flaccid, and the quality of the attacks, especially in the strings, was ragged.
The dense and shifting orchestral colors emerged convincingly in response to Mälkki’s confident sweeps of her arms and delicate conjuring of her fingers, however, as the initial section of the work developed through a splendid rallentendo, approaching its penultimate D-minor cadence before returning to the shimmering tonalities of the beginning. This left no doubt that the BSO could, and would, play for her if it wanted to.
An unexpected auditory event presented itself next, signaling that for all her expertise in contemporary music (Mälkki leads the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris), the conductor respected what Mendelssohn had in mind with regard to the orchestra of his day. BSO third trombone Douglas Yeo sounded his ophicleide, the unfamiliar predecessor of the modern orchestral tuba that is usually cast in this piece. It was as if a fat French horn had descended down an octave and a half below its low F. Yeo’s tone was focused, resonant, a bit thin for the tuba taste, but exquisitely blended with the horns and contrabasses, its slightly nasal quality adding just the right amount of distinction to this important, exposed melody. It was a marvelous touch, evoking the zany spirit of the “play within a play” of Shakespeare’s comedy.
Mendelssohn then explored his developing identity as a romantic in the lovely harmonies that suffused the final passages, featuring another vivace, now appropriately controlled in the strings, that brought in the woodwinds, first in F minor, then on a downward harmonic escalator that flowed in magic thirds through D minor to Bb major to G minor and after a tentative C 7th, to an F-minor cadence. In the end, an affecting, sad, descending scale was repeated by the first violins and then the horns before the woodwinds brought the piece to a soft and satisfying close. It was a stirring performance, to which the audience responded with appropriate enthusiasm. The back-story seemed not to matter. How lovely it is that music is so ephemeral!
Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk brought virtuoso technique to bear on the pubertal pretensions of the Mendelssohn Concerto for violin and piano. The opening of this adolescent adventure sounded as if it came from the composer’s counterpoint class. The “orchestra” here was more a figure of speech than a foundational platform, offering chords and comments beneath the serviceable channeling of a three-note phrase into canonical and fugal configurations. Bach it was not. But Bell and Denk pulled every available emotion from the melodies, such as they were, emphasizing shifting tonalities with graceful dynamics and velvety legatos.
Then came fun! Mälkki, Bell, and Denk whizzed around several octaves’ worth of scales, the two instrumentalists cuing one another with a subtlety that approached telepathy on chiseled phrases, stunning volume shifts, and effortless streaks of unisons and thirds. If the exchanges between the violin and piano seemed absurdly literal and the thematic development sounded primitive, what the piece lacked in structure it gained in breathtaking performance. Back-to-back short cadenzas culminated in a lyrical rubato section for solo piano before the breakneck tempo reappeared. Mendelssohn and the violinist friend for whom the piece was written obviously had enjoyed this chase, stirring a quick quotation of Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” (the popular last movement of his Piano Sonata No. 11) into a recapitulation of the 3-note motif (D, E, A) from the first movement.
Here, Mälkki held it all together, and the orchestra played gamely along. Now there was no obvious backing and filling. The crowd loved it, and many smiles were shared in the intermission that followed.
The Beethoven Romance was a sweet affair, its rhythms and accents guided gently by Mälkki’s hands, arms, and torso. Bell brought a balletic expressivity and his own subtle movements to the arching melodies with controlled nuances and a warm temperament reminiscent of Isaac Stern. Despite the searching, forward-looking brilliance of his original cadenzas, there was not a shred of show or pretence. Here was a serious performance of mature music, as it was meant to be.
The Fourth Symphony began with a sense of mystery. Mälkki took the opening tempo very slowly, giving emphasis to the bold harmonic transits — those magic thirds again! — from Bb minor to Gb to Eb, in which Beethoven pointed the way through Mendelssohn and Schumann to Wagner and 20th-century composition.
The drama was enhanced by Mälkki’s impressively articulated accents. In no sense did the use of her body appear to be disingenuous or inappropriately sensuous, although her femininity could not be denied. This was music making of a very high order, making effective use of a fine repertory of expressive tools.
An exaggerated fortissimo to the first movement allegro gave still more excitement, with blasts of tympani and bursts of trumpets. The mood calmed, and Mälkki focused on the inner voices from the woodwinds. Like a restrained ballerina, she summoned from principal flute Elizabeth Rowe a high and shining solo. Shakes of Mälkki’s hair added a certain swing to Beethoven’s rhythmic syncopations.
Now the musicians were playing absolutely responsively, with mighty crescendos, gossamer string and woodwind pianos, and impressively controlled accents from Timothy Genis’s tympani and the two matched flugelhorns. The dotted-eighth rhythms were signaled by Mälkki’s subtle counterpunches and torso-flicks, yielding inescapably to satisfying orchestral synchrony. Sustaining the emphasis on tonal variety, she hushed the violins with a quick application of finger to lip. Down they came, with alacrity. She urged Beethoven’s sfortzandos with total-body pulses, in which she pushed forward with her hands while arching slightly backward. At the same time, her athleticism was restrained both by her relentless focus on the task at hand and by her costume, a modest tuxedo with a simple leather collar. The music was her focus.
The last movement was a rapid tour de force, wild, and yet controlled. In the swirling violins over tremolo contrabasses, the punctuation of diatonic harmonies with diminished chords, and the buildup to the crashing Bb ending, the full palette of Beethoven’s tortured emotions was exposed. Mälkki had led us through this transit from childhood through adulthood in what felt like minutes. It was intense, enthralling, and revelatory.
Your reviewer searched in vain through Gunther Schuller’s 1997 magnum opus, The Compleat Conductor, for any reference to female conductors. But Schuller’s courageous, indeed relentless, insistence that no one has the right to fiddle with the composer’s intentions, led him to adroit and powerful criticism of such conducting icons as Tanglewood favorite Leonard Bernstein. Schuller documents that although Bernstein himself talked and wrote that music came first, he violated the principle in obvious ways when he was standing on the podium. Schuller underlines a set of paramount conducting values that include honesty, expressivity, respect, and thoughtful reflection.
In this spirit, after a concert like this one, one is constrained to ask these questions:
• Why should this professional guild be nearly exclusively male?
• Could Mälkki’s feminine status have affected the orchestra’s initial resistance?
• Was it daunting to the players and the audience?
• Was her confidence a product of Finland’s more adroit fulfillment of the promise of women musicians that ours?
• If we disagree with her tempos and her interpretations, do we criticize them more harshly because she is a woman?
• Could Mälkki possibly be unaware and unaffected by Marin Alsop’s cruel and public mistreatment by the Baltimore Symphony’s players, even after the Board hired her, and her earlier unpleasant encounter on the Tanglewood podium (that this reviewer witnessed)?
Your reviewer has no answers to these questions except to say that sexism is alive and well in the world of music and that the time has come for female conductors to take their rightful places on the podiums of the world’s greatest orchestras, including this one. Yet another 19th-century European prejudicial tradition should yield to contemporary respect for human rights and gender equality, and to the creative power of cultural diversity.