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.