With Mälkki’s Guidance, In Carnegie’s Embrace, NY Philharmonic Glows

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Susanna Mälkki conducted the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on Jan. 6. (Photos by Chris Lee)

NEW YORK — This fall provided a unique opportunity to hear how the New York Philharmonic sounded in different venues while its home, the acoustically troubled David Geffen Hall, is under long-overdue renovation. As I wrote in a CVNA article on Dec. 2, the sound in both the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center and Alice Tully Hall was dramatically more transparent and live than in Geffen Hall, even though both replacement halls have flaws: a certain shrillness in Rose during loud passages, especially in the upper strings, and a curious lack of a center in Tully.

On Jan. 6, I got to hear the orchestra in its original venue, Carnegie Hall, and this time the sound wasn’t just better, it was transformative, offering not only greater clarity and liveness but a fuller bloom and blend. Everything sounded bigger, warmer, more together, full of lovely overtones, making one wonder how gratifying it must have been to hear the Philharmonic in Carnegie on a regular basis before its move to Lincoln Center in the early 1960s.

The Carnegie sound benefited all three works on this program but was especially impressive in delivering the full impact of Sibelius’ massive Fifth Symphony. The conductor was Susanna Mälkki, who is in great demand for reasons made clear by this commanding performance. Mälkki is Finnish and music director of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, so it made sense for her to present the Sibelius as the main work along with two American pieces. This was Mälkki’s fourth appearance with the orchestra and the first in a series of four Carnegie Philharmonic concerts this winter and spring, the others to be conducted by music director Jaap van Zweden. The latter is stepping down in 2024, and speculation that Mälkki is one of several conductors being closely considered as his successor gave this event an added drama.

Branford Marsalis was soloist in John Adams’ Saxophone Concerto with the New York Philharmonic under Susanna Mälkki.

Right from the whispered beginning of the Sibelius, there was a mysterious connectedness among winds, brass, timpani, and strings, which, thanks to the acoustics, sounded almost like one sonority; you could hear each player if you listened carefully and could relish Sibelius’ novel timbres, but what was important was how everything magically blended to evoke a spellbinding atmosphere. Sibelius presents an associative stream of thought that, far from being a throwback to 19th-century structures, creates its own free, fluid sense of form. Endlessly shifting as one ensemble morphs into another, the music builds toward a series of big moments that showcased the other great benefit of Carnegie Hall — its ability to deliver thrilling fortissimos without shrillness or distortion. The climax at the end of the first movement surged to full glory, as did the culminating “swan theme” in the finale, where the brass came together as one mighty instrument. Yet Mälkki’s reading was straightforward and organic, never mannered or exaggerated. She let the Philharmonic play its heart out and trusted Carnegie Hall, with its special resonance, to lift everything into space.

During his lifetime, Sibelius’ loyalty to the tonal system and his lonely grandeur were never hip enough for the modern-music crowd (though his works were always popular with orchestras and the general public). Yet as Alex Ross points out in The Rest Is Noise, numerous contemporary composers, notably John Adams, have been “paying heed to Sibelius’s thematic deliquescence, his ever-evolving forms, his unearthly timbres.” (In his 1934 essay “Sibelius and the Music of the Future,” composer-critic Constant Lambert predicted such a shift, but Sibelius did not live to see it.)

Adams himself was represented on this cunningly constructed program with his 2013 Saxophone Concerto featuring Branford Marsalis as soloist. It is a highly unconventional concerto that indeed consists of “ever-evolving forms,” with small motifs striving toward a definitive theme only to shift into something else. Once again, Carnegie made a difference, providing such a sensuous blend that it was often hard to distinguish Marsalis’ multi-colored sonorities from other solos or larger textures; for better or worse, he often seemed an important part of a dreamlike ensemble rather than the star of the show.

Susanna Mälkki and the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.

The concert opened with the brash outbursts of Adolphus Hailstork’s 1984 curtain-raiser An American Port of Call, made bigger and bolder by the acoustics and bringing everyone out of their seats, as if to announce, “We are in Carnegie Hall now!” The Philharmonic can be counted on to let loose in a piece like this, and Mälkki seemed eager to show her American chops, allowing the orchestra to play the dissonances at full blast and to swoon during the sentimental nocturnal passages. When I asked Hailstork what it was like to hear the New York Philharmonic play this piece in Carnegie Hall, he said it was “a lifetime’s dream.” I came away from this exciting concert with a dream of my own: that the Philharmonic finally gets a hall worthy of its stature.