Mälkki Meets Mahler And Raises Her Flag As Conductor At Forefront

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Susanna Mälkki led the Chicago Symphony in music by Lowell Liebermann and Mahler at Orchestra Hall. (Photos by Todd Rosenberg Photography)

CHICAGO – While Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki has stood in front of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on several occasions, her latest appearance was both the most programmatically substantial and the most musically impressive — convincing, actually. Her account of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 on March 21 at Orchestra Hall not only separated her from other ascendant women conductors I’ve witnessed, but much more to the point placed her unequivocally among today’s most important conductors altogether.

For many years the principal conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, Mälkki, 55, recently vacated that position and amazingly enough now has no orchestra at all. Before the New York Philharmonic decided on Gustavo Duadmel to succeed Jaap van Zweden, there was much speculation that Mälkki might end up there.

Officially anyway, the Chicago Symphony has yet to name Riccardo Muti’s successor as music director, though the speculative noise suggests that much of the orchestral world will be shocked if the CSO doesn’t anoint the 28-year-old Finn Klaus Mäkelä when he’s in town to lead concerts April 4-6. If that’s not actually a done deal, then both Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša and the suddenly available Salonen, a very popular regular guest on the CSO podium, have a place in the conversation.

The Chicago Symphony horn section gave a lift to Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.

Now, other prominent American orchestras are looking: the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which Dudamel is leaving, as well as the Cincinnati Symphony, the Seattle Symphony, and the San Francisco Symphony, which Esa-Pekka Salonen in a stunning recent announcement declared he will leave at the end of his contract in 2025 for what he calls a lack of support from the board of directors. Mälkki is plausibly on the short list for all of those jobs. And yet another opening is on the horizon as Franz Welser-Möst has announced he will leave the Cleveland Orchestra in 2027 after 25 years as music director.

In any case, all of these worthy ensembles will make a final determination based on a single question: Who is the most brilliant conductor out there? Not for a moment do I believe any orchestra at this level would risk its stature in the name of political correctness. Mastery is all. And that will work in Mälkki’s favor, and very likely soon.

As did the clarinets

She is the genuine article, a very well-schooled and intellectually agile conductor whose emergence into the front ranks has included extensive work in the avant-garde. Mälkki’s immersion in the Mozart-to-Mahler orchestral tradition was marvelously evident in her poetic turn through the Fourth Symphony, the most intimately lyrical and delicately fashioned of Mahler’s 10 completed symphonies — including Das Lied von der Erde, which I would stand in a long line to hear Mälkki conduct at Orchestra Hall.

Basically, the Fourth Symphony is chamber music, and Mälkki shaped it with great finesse, absolute textural clarity, and a fundamental regard for quietude. The CSO responded like the astounding chamber ensemble it is. The first movement sparkled; the wry scherzo’s intricate counterpoint offered a prismatic array of colors. But the really breathtaking convergence of conductor and orchestra came with Mahler’s transcendent slow movement, the heart of this boldly understated symphony. At Mälkki’s expansive tempos, this ethereal music seemed to suspend time. It is a double theme and variations that Mahler characterized in both German — ruhevoll (calm) — and the conventional Italian of poco adagio (somewhat slowly). Mälkki abided faithfully by those wishes, and the Chicago Symphony answered with playing of radiance, fluency, and precision.

CSO principal flute Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson was soloist in the world premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s Flute Concerto No. 2.

The disappointment of Mahler’s effervescent finale, a song for soprano that presents the delights of heaven as if seen through a child’s eyes, was beyond Mälkki’s control. Though soprano Ying Fang brought the proper light lyric weight to the music, her German, untrammeled by consonants, made no sense at all of the texts. She might as well have been singing a vocalise.

The concert’s first half spotlighted CSO principal flute Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson as soloist in the world premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s Flute Concerto No. 2, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony. I couldn’t help thinking of Mälkki’s longstanding involvement in new music and how far this resolutely tuneful work, by turns ebullient and gentle, must fall from her idea of new. In spirit and complexion, Liebermann’s 20-minute concerto suggests a keen connection to the legacies of Vaughan Williams and Debussy. Still, it’s as openly infectious as it is virtuosic, and the audience reacted to Höskuldsson’s display of blistering runs and unfailing warmth with an ovation that was loud and long.