Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Keeping Your Options Open

November 15, 2010

Susanna Mälkki and members of the L.A. Philharmonic Photo: mine 2010

Recently, a fellow blog reader and writer asked me whom I might like to see as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic other than Gustavo Dudamel. As regular (or even occasional) readers may know, I am no great fan of Dudamel here in Los Angeles. My efforts to offer his services in an amicable trade for other music directors around the country have been routinely rebuffed by friends and fellow music lovers. I was able to generate a significant number of names for a possible L.A. replacement featuring a wide range of people. But this weekend I realize I forgot one – Susanna Mälkki. A young woman on the rise, Mälkki has proven herself with numerous contemporary music assignments as well as on podiums of the world’s biggest orchestras in recent years. She has been the music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain since 2006. The Finnish conductor made her local debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend in a varied program that showcased both her affinity and acumen with contemporary music as well as her ability to martial a steady hand and firm control of a big Romantic masterwork.

The new music on the program was a U.S. Premiere of a Los Angeles Philharmonic co-commission from composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. Hammered Out received its first performance earlier this year at the Proms in London and like much of Turnage’s work, it shows an interest in popular American musical idioms. While jazz influences are common for him, Hammered Out is particularly infatuated with the kind of rhythmic devices used in contemporary popular R&B. Turnage himself mentions the influence of artists such as James Brown in a work like this and the intersecting percussion and horn parts made for an energetic cacophony if not one usually associated with the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Mälkki rose to the occasion here keeping everything together. Tight playing is one thing for a 5 to 20-piece ensemble backing up a singer like James Brown. Doing the same thing with nearly 100 orchestra musicians is quite another, and Mälkki exercised great control.

At the other end of Sunday’s program was another large scale work, Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. Certainly, it’s a familiar piece for the audience, and Mälkki kept the tone poem firmly rooted in its Romantic heritage. Again there was a controlled clarity and even-handedness that has been desperately lacking this season at Walt Disney Concert Hall. It was a lovely energy and a lovely performance. The rest of the show belonged to the first Mozart Violin Concerto with soloist and concertmaster Martin Chalifour. He played with an energetic and appropriately light touch for a work that rested comfortable in the middle of two much bigger endeavors. Let’s hope Susanna Mälkki is one name we see back on programs here soon.



I saw Sunday's performance and must reluctantly confess -- I thought it a mess. I did appreciate "Hammered Out". But then on the Mozart and Struass i heard awkward entrances throughout, and at least two places in the Strauss where the brass was out of sync. I wanted to love Maikki. But I didn't experience the tightness you heard. From my second row seat, I watched the cellists grimace and eye-roll at the timing slips.
Fair enough. My thoughts about coordiantion had more to do with the Turnage piece than the Struass. I agree the brass has continued to struggle this season on and off. The Mozart was a bit heavy handed. Still, I found it overall more satisfying than not.
The brass is struggling this season? Could you be more specific?

To be fair MrC, the statement is a gross and probably unfair generalization. What might be more accurate to say is that to my admittedly amateur ear, missed entrances and missed notes from the brass section have become increasingly common in the six orchestral performances I’ve heard so far this season. Or at least more common than I remember in my prior experiences listening to the orchestra. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it and I don’t see it as some big harbinger of doom. My perception is that such errors are not typically the case nor am I sitting there with a score and a red pen checking them off as they occur. This is not really something I felt was worth mentioning in my original posts, because I don’t see it as that much of an issue and only brought it up in response to Tim’s comment.

More broadly “the brass” in and of itself is an unfair generalization. It is often the case that errors are just as, if not more, common in other parts of the orchestra and those in the brass are only more noticeable since they are so easily heard above everyone else. Secondly, “the brass” represents a lot of players depending on the given evening and if there are more frequent errors, they may belong to a small subset of players and not everyone. I don’t recall any wayward tuba solos at any time in the recent or distant past, but I couldn’t point my finger at anyone in particular if asked to. And finally, how much of this is playing and how much is lackluster conducting would be another matter for debate. The current music director, Mr. Dudamel, seems to be less concerned about when sounds occur than how loud they are when they do. Of course he only conducted half of the shows I’ve seen this fall so far so laying it all at his feet may not be appropriate either.
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