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Chin’s Exquisite Cello Concerto with Mälkki, BSO


Susanna-Malkki conducting with cellist Alban Gerhardt (Stu-Rosner photo)

The Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki returned to the BSO on February 10 for her third engagement and led the ensemble with great assurance through a program that featured a cello concerto by the Korean-born composer Unsuk Chin, Sibelius’ majestic Fifth Symphony, a lovely little Dvorák piece for cello, and one of Haydn’s lesser-known symphonies.

Cello soloist Alban Gerhardt was remarkable, and in the pre-concert talk he and Chin chatted affably about the origins of the piece, which grew out of their close friendship. While Chin did not consult with Gerhardt while writing it, she did compose it with his playing in mind. He noted that it was not entirely idiomatic: the musical ideas had been conceived without considering the comfort of the cellist (he teased her about this), and the performance was certainly an Olympic challenge. Nevertheless, one hopes that the work will be taken up by other soloists, as it brought us into an evocative and at times haunting sonic landscape.

The first movement, Aniri (the other three movements are titled only by metronome indications), refers to a style of recitative found in Korean music drama. Emerging from a unison on the two harps, the cello began circling around the one note, growing to wider and more dramatic statements. The anchor pitch held its gravity, while the cello discoursed, backed by orchestral outbursts and shimmering layers of sonorous depths. Using a huge panoply of percussion, the movement ended with a resonating thunderclap.

The second movement had a rapid driving pulse, and the cello exchanged exuberant running and leaping figures with the orchestra. The third movement again featured a sustained anchor note, held in murmurs by the orchestra. The cello was a different persona here, with a poignant melody, part lament, part meditation. The accompaniment, lower strings in harmonics, suggested the sounds of (perhaps) a distant church organ heard across a misty expanse. As the keening built over this mournful backdrop, the intensity built to a spine-chilling climax, accented with four of the nine triangles. Chin’s use of orchestra color is exquisite and mind-expanding; the sounds were at times otherworldly and seemed to surround the audience from all sides.

The cello began with frantic improvised gestures in the Finale, and the orchestra punctuated with a driving series of chords that had a hypnotic effect. Out of this energy, it was startling when the cello broke in with (gasp!) another melody, this one so lyrical it was almost like something from a nineteenth-century song. The orchestra threatened it with a murky sea of glissando, and with that miasma in motion coming to an impasse, it was the end, the tension between solo and orchestra suspended in silence as we held our breath for minutes (hours, years, such was the timeless experience) while the final sounds resonated far beyond silence.

Mälkki expertly navigated this complex score and brought it to life with complete assurance, the audience responded with a deserved ovation. This is a work I look forward to hearing and engaging with in the future (and will attend again, Friday night!)

After intermission, Gerhardt was brought back for a purely lyrical moment in Dvorák’s Silent Woods, arranged for cello and orchestra. It was refreshing to hear the rich timbre of the cello in this simply lovely little piece, after the complexity and intensity of the Chin concerto.

Sibelius’ Fifth symphony was the final work on the program. Sibelius’ love of nature resonates throughout, with its opening suggesting birdcalls, coalescing into longer ideas and themes. The second movement evokes at times Scandinavian folk music, with Mälkki easing and flexing the tempos, and drawing a nuanced sound from the ensemble. With its dramatic horn call motive and soaring string countermelodies, the Finale was electrifying and brought the program to an exhilarating close.

Now, about the Haydn that began the evening, Symphony (no. 59, “Fire”). The origins of the nickname are unknown, but may refer to the spiky leaps of the opening motive in the violins. The delicate Menuetto exposed some lapses of ensemble (the only ones of the evening): in the Trio the first and second violins did not quite mesh precisely in the meandering melody that unfolded in parallel thirds.

To mention the elephant in the room, I am exaggerating (but only slightly) to say that having a female composer and female conductor on the same program is like having a lunar eclipse and a solar eclipse on the same stage. After all, Shi-Yeon Sung was assistant conductor for two years and fared well on the BSO stage, and Mälkki has been here before too. It is female composers who remain the real rarity at the BSO, although Maestro Levine has scheduled a work by Sofia Gubaidulina for next season.

The BSO occasionally programs contemporary women composers, but they are heard less frequently here than in other orchestras of a similar calibre. And what we never hear  — not in Boston and very rarely elsewhere — are works by historic women. In this concert, much was made (in the program notes and pre-concert lecture) about the fact the BSO had not played this particular Haydn Symphony before. How much more intriguing it would have been to hear a truly “new” historic work, such as the Sinfonia by Anna Amalia, Duchess of Saxe-Weimar (1739-1807), which was discovered in an archive only in 2000, and premiered in New York City in 2008 (as detailed here )

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. Her website is here.


13 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. *** To mention the elephant in the room, I am exaggerating (but only slightly) to say that having a female composer and female conductor on the same program is like having a lunar eclipse and a solar eclipse on the same stage.
    I was annoyed by the Chin’s cello concerto. In my view it was a typical Asian-style music, empty intellectualizing on irrelevant harmonics, something that I truly hate. What however, made me to reply is your great observations of astronomic events. I understand that there are people out there who made leaving by creating nervous tension about “woman studies”. I guess those people are necessary as without them Bostonians would slaughter women or UPS them to Salem, MA. Ironically the same “activists” bite own lips when MA courts made their ex-husbands to pay to them alimony for 5 life durations…. Anyhow, I feel that is was a ridicules comment. Hey, if I am a Catholic then let me to calculate the amount of Catholics at the BSO’s stage and if it was higher then what we have in Boston then I would declare it as some kind or “super nova explosion”…. Liane , do we live in the same Galaxy?

    Comment by Romy The Cat — February 13, 2011 at 7:58 pm

  2. Actually, I liked the Chin music. I especially enjoyed the first movement, with its constant focus on a single pitch — talk about your tonal music.

    I hope that some day people won’t feel it so necessary to emphasize the sex of female composers or performers, as if perhaps some degree of preferential consideration were needed or justified.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 14, 2011 at 2:53 am

  3. I hope that some day people won’t feel it so necessary to emphasize the sex of female composers or performers….

    Meanwhile I will be tasking a day off tomorrow and will rearrange my LP collection in new “astronomic “ Liane Curtis’ order , I will call it “the rea-Liane-ment ceremony” . Probably I will start with my chamber section and will re-order LPs from by composer and then by trios, quartets, quintets, sextet, etc to the percentage of males vs. females. Liane, let me consult with you: is it advisable to have a sub-section reflecting hair color for the female-dominated ensembles separating them by blonds, reds and brunettes? How about heights, there are some tall players and there are some short one? Or probably to separate them all by AAA membership would be betters idea. Help, Ms. Curtis, I am at complete confusion….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — February 14, 2011 at 8:55 am

  4. I’m annoyed by Romy’s nutty comment on this review, which appears to have been a veritable Rorschach for his/her simmering resentments. I’m neither a woman nor a professor of women’s studies nor an activist, but like Liane Curtis I too was struck by the rarity of hearing a woman conduct the BSO in a piece by a female composer. I was grateful for it, and very much appreciated the occasion, but mostly because to my ears and heart the Chin Cello Concerto is a remarkable piece. What a privilege to hear the masterful Alban Gerhardt, the cellist whom Chin had in mind when she composed it, premiere this stunning work in Boston! I didn’t hear anything “Asian” (whatever THAT means), intellectualized, or irrelevant in any of it. The concerto is intensely emotional, heartfelt, and dreamlike, rendered in a musical language that was often quite new to me and yet indescribably captivating and eloquent. The Chin happens to require the utmost commitment, virtuosity and precision from soloist and orchestra, not to mention the conductor. Mälkki’s leadership on Saturday night was vivid, decisive, and deeply attuned to Gerhardt. I can’t wait to hear this piece again, and also look forward to more reviews from the astute Curtis, with whom I am quite happy to share the galaxy…

    Comment by Nimitta — February 14, 2011 at 9:07 am

  5. Was an amazing show. Great contrast between the opening Hayden piece and Chin’s electrifying composition. Alban Gerhardt was on fire!

    Comment by Rock — February 14, 2011 at 1:45 pm

  6. A couple of times during the cello concerto I found myself tapping my heel.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 14, 2011 at 7:05 pm

  7. I made an effort today and re-listen the Chin’s concerto. Perhaps I am in different mood today but the piece did not affect me as negative as during my initial listening on Saturday. On Saturday I bailed out in the end of the first movement, I found it incredibly boring, almost needless boring. Today I heard the whole piece, I was warmer to it and the last movement was pleasant indeed. The last movement was free from that Asian Sound that annoyed me so much in the first movement. Still, I do not know, folks. If this is the direction where “music went” then let call it a successful concerto. However, I made myself to listen after the Chin’s concerto the Chopin’s Sonata for cello and piano to assure my dilapidating sanity.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — February 15, 2011 at 9:00 pm

  8. I was at the performance on Saturday and I hate to say it but Unsuk Chin’s concerto was the worst ‘music’ I have ever been subjected to at the bso. The article is trying to be polite here but someone needs to tell the truth. I have never heard so many mean comments about the music during the intermission than I heard after Chin’s piece on Saturday. I didn’t realize how vocal the bso patrons could be about one piece of music. I heard comments like “anxiety provoking”, “offensive to the ear”, “tedious” and when I returned to my seat there were two couples in front of me that loudly voiced their discontent saying things like “I loved the ending” and then bursting into laughter. That is just what I heard within earshot, I’m sure there was more negative comments said throughout the evening. Honestly, I understand that the bso is trying to invite something new, but this is just not it. Chin’s “music” did not sound like music at all. There was absolutely no melody, just a bunch of sounds and then an occasional ‘boom’ or ‘crash’. It sounded like the instruments were being tuned all night, not played. The piece was full of tension and seemed like an unfinished piece of work. At one point, it sounded like some sort of tribal music but never really got a rhythm going. That being said, the cellist did an incredible job keeping up with the difficult technical work. Honestly, the entire concerto was being laughed at all night. If you could have seen the looks that people were giving each other while the concerto was in full swing – I think most people would be surprised. I felt like I was in an audience of teenagers.

    I feel bad for Unsuk Chin, because everyone is praising her work and being polite, when it really is awful to listen to. Please, someone help Unsuk with this piece!!

    Comment by rarebreed — February 16, 2011 at 2:40 pm

  9. *** It sounded like the instruments were being tuned all night, not played.

    Rarebreed, the “tuning instruments syndrome” that you described is one of the derivatives from what I call Asian Sound. When I observe listening practice of different ethnic groups I come to concussion that it mostly comes from Asian languages.

    Non-Asian people use phonetic symbols to construct their words, contrary to the Asian people who recognize along with phonetic characters the amplitude of pitches, or something that call non-morphemic tone. The Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Burmese, Thai and many other Asian languages consist of many phonetic characters and tonal markings. This concept is mostly unused by Western languages as Westerners uses tones just to spice up or to moderate intent of phrases. Asians languages in contrary use multiple (I believe up to 4) separate tonal groups. As the result, Westerners get out of tonal emphasis of language only impersonal satisfaction, contrary to Asian people, who are able to get out of tonal emphasis some INTELLECTUAL pleasure. For an Asian person the amplitude of pitch and height of a tone as something that modifies definitions of the words, Asian use tone as nouns what Westerner use it as adjective. An Asian person would for hours listen a single sting of some kind of Indian or Japanese lute. Westerner would not find it attractive if it has no harmony as it would not see purpose. An Asian person would not need it as the little harmonic fluctuation of the main pitch would give to Asian interest and pleasure. This is how mind works in Asian culture; at least it is my theory.

    Sure, there is nothing wrong with it. The USE of the “tonal intellectualizing for sake of intellectualizing” is a great Method, listen the Ligeti´s Cello concerto by Siegfried PalmThis for instance but I have problem when the “tonal intellectualizing” turned from a Method to an Object. I feel that it is what Unsuk Chin did in first movement and I feel that it was not interesting. I need to say that I hear a LOT of worse compositions that go to the realm of Asian Sound much deeper. I do admit that I do not like Asian Sound, it might be my imperfection but it is what it is…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — February 17, 2011 at 12:14 am

  10. rarebreed: “I feel bad for Unsuk Chin, because everyone is praising her work and being polite, when it really is awful to listen to.”

    Hmmm, not everyone, rarebreed, or even very many at all, as far as I could see. Like you, I was there Saturday night, and the composer received a really enthusiastic reception for her magnificent Cello Concerto. I’ve been attending the symphony for about 35 years, and I don’t think I can recall ever hearing music that “is awful to listen to” – a rarity for the BSO – produce so much happiness. Where I was sitting (orchestra, up close, near the center aisle) almost everybody around me was visibly excited and gave Chin a resounding standing ovation. Afterward, during intermission, all the buzz I heard around me concerning the piece was very positive.

    rarebreed: “Please, someone help Unsuk with this piece!!”

    I’m not sure exactly what kind of ‘help’ you think the composer needs – she seems to have done superbly well by most of us! Besides, even if only a small fraction of the audience found it sublime, I think that would be quite a success, actually. I mean, how many Bostonians attending the BSO’s debut performance of Debussy’s La Mer heard anything even faintly marine? Not too many, according to published reports. Maybe sometimes it’s the audience that needs help, to truly open their ears, minds, and hearts.

    Comment by Nimitta — February 17, 2011 at 4:30 pm

  11. Nimitta: I was there Saturday night, and the composer received a really enthusiastic reception for her magnificent Cello Concerto.

    Nimitta , and after your 35 years attending the symphony did you recall any moment when US audiences did not express thier “enthusiastic reception”? A half of the audiences in symphony are accidental people and they will cheer anything, absolutely anything! I attended concerts that was so bad that the conductor ran out of stage, shamed to lift his eyes to people. The audiences still dived into their customary orgasmatic ovations. I was at lower balcony at left and as the stupid “enthusiastic reception” begun I recognized that were very few people who openly laughing to the fact of the “enthusiastic reception”. The point is that it is not Italy in 30s and audiences do not kick bad performers out of stage. Everything goes nowadays, and everything gets positive review but those industry cronies… So, I do not feel that your “advocacy” of the Chin’s concerto by looking at audience’s reaction is worthy. I think we come to the public forums like this one to express OUR OWN VIEWS, not to calculate how many enthusiastic people in the house were clapping.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — February 17, 2011 at 10:12 pm

  12. I just stopped by to visit and noticed quite a few responses to my post last week. I didn’t mean to set anyone off here but I can only comment on what I saw and heard. Chin’s concerto was so awful to be subjected to that it almost ruined our evening. It was a huge disappointment and I still feel duped by the BSO and the reviews that I read for making me believe that Chin’s concerto was worth leaving the house for that evening. My point is this, don’t lie your patrons about the music being more than what it is. Post at least a sample of that music on your website so that your patrons can decide for themselves if they want to sit through 30 minutes of that noise.

    I appreciate Romy the Cat’s description of Asian music – but excuse me we are NOT in Asia! We want to hear melody and something that sounds like an attempt at real music that is universally accepted. Think of all of the great classic pieces that are a century old or more – why are they still around and popular? Why? Because of the melody and flow for starters. Chin’s concerto will never reach this level and will unfortunately be forgotten 50 years from now. But you will still hear Beethoven somewhere!

    Romy the Cat, if this “music” is of the concept that you mentioned earlier and provides “intellectual pleasure” then it is, simply, NOT MUSIC. It’s just NOT music. It’s something else, but it is NOT music. Quite frankly, I want a refund!

    Comment by rarebreed — February 21, 2011 at 7:51 pm

  13. Ms. Chin’s Cello Concerto took my breath away. I not not a fan of most modern classical but this piece was truly brilliant. Extremely complex and visceral. I look forward to hearing it again in person and second best, getting an audio recording.

    Comment by David — August 11, 2011 at 10:45 pm

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