Women conductors, for reasons sadly unclear, are infrequent guests with the New York Philharmonic. True, Antonia Brico conducted an al-fresco concert at Lewisohn Stadium in 1938, and Nadia Boulanger was allowed half a gala the following year. The legendary composer/teacher returned in 1962, the first of her gender entrusted with a regular subscription event. Until Thursday, the last woman encountered on our prime podium was Xian Zhang, back in 2009.
Under the circumstances, the big news had to involve Susanna Mälkki. The Finnish maestra, justly celebrated elsewhere, made an imposing debut with an agenda that sandwiched an agitated novelty by Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012) between a pair of taut yet feverish staples by Brahms. Gratifyingly, the new sounded provocative, and the old sounded almost new.
Mälkki, born in 1969, cuts an elegant figure, exudes authority and commands a meticulous technique. She dashed with forceful grace through Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn, then neatly defined, also clarified, the moody rumbles and grumbles of Harvey’s Tranquil Abiding (1998). She may have favoured expressive passion over subtle repose. With these challenges, however, that seemed persuasive, even logical.
Kirill Gerstein, born 35 years ago in Voronezh, Russia, served as heroic protagonist in Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, conquering all hurdles with rhapsodic energy, impulsive sweep and, where possible, delicate introspection. Mälkki reinforced every keyboard quiver and quaver with symphonic sympathy.
Incidental intelligence: the originally scheduled soloist, Jonathan Biss, had to withdraw because of a broken arm. In an unusually candid announcement, he admitted that he had been able to play Mozart in Los Angeles a few days earlier but found the Brahms a different matter. “It is nearly 50 minutes long,” he wrote, “and makes unusual demands in terms of power and stamina. My doctors and I felt that it would be safer to give my arm a bit more time before tackling such a mammoth work.” His unfortunate loss turned out to be Gerstein’s triumphant gain.
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