in: Reviews

August 27, 2010

Mälkki, with Bell, and Denk, Raises Questions of Tempo and Gender

by

Susanna Mälkki leads the BSO (Hilary-Scott)

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.

Note: BMInt issued retraction of sexism charges here.

Eli H. Newberger studied music theory and reviewed classical music for the Yale Daily News. Performing music, he wrote in “Medicine of the Tuba” in Doctors Afield (Yale University Press, 1999), helps him to care. That chapter and other writings on music and medicine may be found on his website, here.

14 Comments

  1. Eli, as much I enjoyed your article as much I was puzzled when you descended to discuss sexism. In this spirit, after reading your observations, one is constrained to ask these questions:

    • Would the event of orchestra’s initial resistance be the same if Mälkki was a chicken, or a dolphin or a Martian?
    • Since orchestras resist to any air-breathing vertebrate and all of them ware black on the podium then would it make sense to dress our musicians in Hawaiian shirts and Gipsy skirts?
    • If Mälkki was not mammal but fish then why she did not conduct from aquarium?
    • If we disagree with her tempos but if she was a horse than can we admit that she has two more leg and more competent in tempos then some other primitive two-legged creatures?

    Honestly, Eli, the last paragraphs of your articles sound to me exactly like this. What will be next? The review of BSO plays with Malcolm vs. Tamara at the first chair from a new perspective of sexual liberation? How about when BSO plays bad under Levine then will we accuse BSO in hate of people with disabilities? Shall we blame BSO for 29 years of bad play under Ozawa become those prejudicial bad people in BSO are anti-Asian? Ridicules!!!

    Yes, it might be millions moments of sexism, racism and any other “isms” in life, and, yes, it might exists on stage as a reflection of life. Apparently it bothers you, which is fine. What I think is not fine is to advocate your predisposition to sexism speculation using Mälkki and BSO as a hostages of your agenda. Come on, Eli, you can do it better than this!

    Rgs, Romy the Cat

    Comment by Romy The Cat — August 28, 2010 at 10:59 pm

  2. Thanks for this very thought-provoking review!

    Comment by Joel Cohen — August 29, 2010 at 1:50 pm

  3. This invaluable journal, with its high standard of criticism, was absolutely correct in writing a retraction of Eli Newberger’s comments about sexism at the BSO. Indeed, not only did they have absolutely no basis in fact, but they also clearly reflected this reviewer’s personal agendas. The same caveat can apply to Newberger’s supposedly insightful musical analyses in his reviews, which have been incorrect on a number of occasions. It takes more than a few undergraduate courses in music theory to claim a professional level of musical expertise, just it takes more experience than that of a pediatrician to lecture parents on how to raise male children in order to become the “men” he wants them to become.

    Comment by e.r.staunt — September 2, 2010 at 10:36 am

  4. Hm….. e.r.staunt, I do not know how about that. Even I disagree with Eli’s view that each musician hold on a stage his or her sexual Pavlovian Reflexes but I also disagree that it is a job of a journal to moderate the author’s views. Ms. Newberger published her article that is reflection of her perception, hopefully not the reflection of the publication’s agenda. I am not pleased that the Intelligencer decided to take a position on it – in my view it is not a job of a publication. Yes, we are an individual readers, including editors and publishers, might agree or disagree with specific views expressed but this is the whole point to have a “journal of high standard of criticism” – no one take sides and no one is in a ruling position. In a high standard journal the QUALITY OF CONTENT dictates ruling and set the “righteousness”, not the administrative actions.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — September 2, 2010 at 1:46 pm

  5. Romy apparently does not entirely understand that the Intelligencer is both a journal and a blog. The writers of reviews and articles expect to be edited. And we don’t feel we must publish every submission. As a Journal we have an editorial policy and and outlook. The blog portion of our site is free from editors’ ministrations other than a moderator’s decision as to whether a comment is germane and whether it violates broad standards of decency. I have only denied one comment post in two years.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 2, 2010 at 7:54 pm

  6. I have followed this discussion with interest, and am puzzled about why the Intelligencer staff and others take such offense at this excellent and thoughtful review. Is there any question that there are very few women conductors of major orchestras, and that only a few have only recently achieved that status? No, there is not. Based on that context, Newberger raises questions about whether the conductor’s gender could have been a factor in the orchestra’s resistance to her tempi. He raises fair and thoughtful questions, which should invite thoughtful discussion. Rather than charging the orchestra with sexism, Newberger states that he doesn’t have the answer to these questions, but that sexism is alive and well in the world of music. Amen to that! Orchestras are now full of wonderful women musicians, but their podiums are overwhelmingly occupied by men. This seems analogous to the corporate world where women have been far more successful in entering the middle ranks, but are underrepresented at the top. Bravo to this reviewer for having the courage to raise these important issues, which bear both on the status of women in music, and on musical quality. And shame on the Intelligencer for their narrow mindedness in misreading the review, and their ugly response to the reviewer.,

    Comment by eleanor morris — September 2, 2010 at 10:03 pm

  7. CLARIFICATION ON THIS ISSUE FROM US AT BMInt:

    Eli Newberger wrote that the orchestra played very well for Guest Conductor Susan Mälkki later in the concert; so whatever was the reason for what he saw as unresponsive playing in Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is a slender scaffold on which to build that general charge of sexism. I had given thought to editing it out for a separate article, as I did his extended comments on Judaism in an earlier review; but frankly, the comments on sexism not only permeated this entire review, but that kind of editing, close to re-writing, is a difficult, time-consuming task. One has to be sure that the review itself AND the resulting article both hold together, and this review already had come in later than we like. As readers I hope note, BMInt reviewers get them generally within 24 hours (or less!)

    Now for the main reasons for our disclaimer: 1) We heard heard from players that, contrary to what was represented, they loved Mälkki; and 2) She has been asked back next year by BSO management, which to our minds is verification of the value they place in her conducting. Letting the review stand without comment was an embarrassment for us. But we have not removed it.

    Most important, we are not a solely a blog. Not even primarily a blog. We are a journal of information on classical music in Boston that provides many timely reviews by now over 30 contributors, most of them professional musicologist and musicians, an extensive calendar, and relevant articles, AS WELL AS a blog that includes an opportunity for readers to air their opinions.

    I can assure you, as someone who heard Doriot Anthony play a recital at Agassiz way back in 1953, when Academia and the classical music “world” in Boston was all abuzz at her being the first woman appointed to a BSO position (never mind, as Principal), that the BSO has come a long, long, way. Of course sexism has been a problem, at the BSO (how about at Harvard?) and elsewhere. And continues to be so, in some places. Maybe here, too. But the BSO players are now more than 50% women! And beyond a subjective opinion this review gave no evidence that sexism currently exists at the BSO.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — September 3, 2010 at 9:00 am

  8. At the risk of violating Mark Twain’s advice, “Never pick a fight with a man who buys his ink by the barrel,” I want to set the record straight. I neither intended nor alleged that “sexism currently exists at the BSO,” to quite Bettina Norton’s assertion above. I did, however, take the opportunity to comment on an important contemporary issue in classical music, just as I have on other matters in previous reviews. Furthermore, when my review was submitted on August 27, I requested in the email transmission that it appear with a picture of Susanna Malkki.

    The following is Ms. Norton’s message of thanks to the BSO’s publicist, Taryn Lott, for the picture that she sent:
    Fri, Aug 27, 2010 at 4:33 PM, Bettina A. Norton wrote:
    Taryn, et alli, It’s up with a fabulous photo. Taryn, will you pass on to Hilary that the photo of Ms. Malkki’s hands is worthy of Caravaggio?
    Eli’s review is wonderful, no?
    The best to you and see you in Boston, Toni
    Bettina A. Norton Executive Editor Boston Musical Intelligencer

    Following this praise for my review, I was shocked on September 1, when I opened the BMint website and saw a banner, posted at the top above the Reviews and News and Features lists that read:
    BMInt Regrets Error in BSO Review
    “Much as we enjoy the extensive musical analysis in reviews by Eli Newberger, who has covered so many Tanglewood concerts this season, we have heard from multiple sources that some assumptions were unsupported by facts on the matter of the orchestra’s reactions to Guest Conductor Susanna Mälkki on August 21. [click title for complete statement]”

    Having received no prior communication of any concern about so-called “assumptions” or “charges,” I immediately requested the opportunity to review the comments from the “multiple sources” and to be given an opportunity to respond to the specific complaints. I have yet to see them, but I have been informed by Mr. Eiseman that there were two (2) comments and that “I cannot divulge my sources.”

    Let the record be clear. I have submitted 13 pieces to the Boston Musical Intelligencer, one of which appeared as a “Feature.”
    All were respectful of the good-faith efforts of the instrumentalists, soloists, conductors, dancers and choreographers, and the two institutions that presented them, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival. This review was written in that same spirit and raised important questions to which I acknowledged not having the answers.

    In all these honest expressions of my perceptions, interpretations, and analyses, submitted in good faith, I hoped to elevate discourse on these important issues. I earnestly recommend that the governance of the Harvard Musical Intelligencer be formalized with the appointment of a proper, independent Editorial Board and well-articulated terms of reference for the employment of its editors and the processing of submissions of its contributors, similar to those that guide other nonprofits, such as The Harvard Musical Association, its principal financial sponsor.

    Comment by Eli Newberger — September 3, 2010 at 2:56 pm

  9. After hearing this concert at the Shed, I was left scratching my head about this “review”. If one is so concerned about “sexism”, why the reference to the body parts (face, hair, torso)?

    One cannot convincingly lay claim that the BSO management is exhibiting sexism as they
    –have had an Assistant Conductor for not only the usual 2 year term, but it was extended for
    a third year this past year;
    –and this actually was Susanna Malkki’s 2nd appearance with the BSO, as she made her debut
    in April 2009 and impressed one and all with Stravinsky and Debussy in place of Yuri Temirkanov. As mentioned elsewhere, she’ll return to Symphony Hall to conduct Sibelius for her third appearance.
    A lot of male conductors don’t get this treatment!

    The players of the BSO I’ve talked to are looking forward to Malkki’s return. Couldn’t read any sexism there, from players of either gender.

    As Bettina Norton put it above, if one wants to discuss sexism in the orchestra world, this
    wasn’t the event to set off the debate. If our reviewer smelled a controversy, and saw smoke, he
    didn’t help anybody (much less himself) by raising sexism. Because if he’s convinced he saw smoke, he ended up describing the wrong fire, or should I say, making up a fire to replace
    the one he didn’t see.

    Comment by Former horn player — September 3, 2010 at 4:12 pm

  10. On behalf of BMInt, both Toni Norton and I apologize publicly to Eli for his discovery of our “retraction” before we were successful in reaching him. We both can feel his hurt. Though I must add that I am surprised and disappointed he chose to reveal internal correspondence in an attempt to embarrass and discredit us.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 3, 2010 at 5:11 pm

  11. So let me get this straight. You are apologizing to Newberger because HE saw the banner too soon. Shouldn’t you apologize for YOUR posting the banner before you spoke with him? And why couldn’t you reach him? Was he out of the country? Doesn’t he have email?

    And then you’re “disappointed” because he revealed correspondence that showed that you thought the review was “wonderful,” despite all your protestations about no time for editing, etc, and that you wouldn’t share the complaints. This is part of the story and he has a right to tell it. I don’t wonder that you’re embarrassed. You should be, but because of your behavior, not his.

    The “errors” here are many, but I don’t think they are Newberger’s:

    1. This man writes fantastic reviews. It is not in the interest of Bmint to treat any reviewer this way, but surely not a reviewer of such quality and interest.
    2. He didn’t make the “charges” about sexism in the BSO that you accuse him of making. He raised questions. Not everyone needs to agree with him. That’s what discussions are for.
    3. You keep repeating your mistakes about what he wrote. Perhaps you believe that repeating things that are not true will make them true.
    4. Art is part of the larger world, with its cultures, its prejudices, its preoccupations and agendas, and its histories. The best reviews, in all the arts, make these links and enable us to think about and experience art in all its human dimensions.

    Comment by eleanor morris — September 3, 2010 at 7:14 pm

  12. Yes, we feel bad that we didn’t reach Eli. He was in Providence, I learned when he called. I assumed that he was returning my phone message. It was unfortunate that he was showing someone there his review before we spoke, and I can imagine his dismay. I certainly was mortified.

    Yes, the banner should have gone up later. But something still would have been put up. Our first thought was to stem the criticism the “main office” was getting. A number of people, it seems, “misread” the review.

    No, I do not think we are “narrow-minded” or “ugly.” Precipitous in this instance, yes.

    But as I wrote to Eli yesterday, let’s all calm down and go about our business, which is to encourage classical music in Boston.

    We are awaiting a review from him for the final Aug. 29 concert at Tanglewood, and I hope we get it.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — September 3, 2010 at 9:27 pm

  13. .Lee and Toni: Who do you think you are? Perhaps the know-nothing, say-nothing board of WGBH whose smothering pretensions you pierced so effectively last Spring? Your comments sound huffy, stuffy, fluffy, pressured, inauthentic … shall we say: tin-eared and entirely orthogonal to the BMInt’s design and profession to be (yes, finally, thank you) a free grown-up forum on the coruscatingly brilliant and blessed Boston musical scene.

    Your astonishingly observant and articulate reviewer develops an elegant inquiry into what feels to him like an emotional blockage and contest over tempi between guest conductor and BSO: might the local anomaly of a woman with a baton have anything to do with the tension? You refer to “Eli’s charge of sexism at the BSO” — first big mistake, because he made no such “charge.” But, worse, you rush to report authoritatively, as if from party headquarters: No Sexism Here! And then you reassure us, and the party bosses, that Eli’s review was “generally very enthusiastic.” Whew!

    The strangest part of this tempest is that you sound petty, jealous, protectionist and old-hat precisely when you should be taking deep bows for birthing the liveliest voice and the most enviably tuned ears that have ever been enlisted in helping us all listen deeper and better to works and performances of unfathomable genius and ultimate mystery.

    By the way, did George Bernard Shaw or any other giant of music criticism draw Lee Eiseman’s fatuous line between his “personal opinions” and his “review”? Obviously Eli’s BMInt commentaries have his individual spin on them, but why else would anyone read a public notice of an artistic performance? The point you seem missing entirely, Lee and Toni, is that Eli Newberger is far the best thing that ever happened to BMInt. He may make it a household word, a cultural necessity, the talk of the town.

    Comment by Christopher Lydon — September 3, 2010 at 10:20 pm

  14. I encourage those on both sides of the debate to turn down the volume. Toni and I were inconsiderate in the timing of our remarks, but we said nothing negative about Eli the man or the reviewer. Nor did we alter his review or censor it or take it down. It’s still there as his opinion.

    I hope there is something we can all learn from this discourse.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 3, 2010 at 10:23 pm

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