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Music review: Susanna Malkki makes her L.A. Philharmonic debut

November 14, 2010 |  3:00 pm

The much talked-about music director of the high-Modern, Boulez-blessed ensemble intercontemporain in Paris, Susanna Mälkki finally made her Los Angeles Philharmonic debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall. She began Saturday afternoon with … Beyoncé.

In her defense, the 41-year-old Finnish conductor wouldn't have known what she was getting into when she agreed to lead the U.S. premiere of a new Mark-Anthony Turnage curtain-raiser. A co-commission by the L.A. Philharmonic and the BBC Proms, "Hammered Out" happens to contain variations on the hook from Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” something Turnage kept coyly quiet at the first performance by the BBC Symphony in London last summer. The British press was scandalized (no doubt because none of the classical critics recognized the pop hit).

Then again, Mälkki should have been prepared for something. Turnage enjoys a bad boy reputation as a British composer with an urgent edge and a pop sensibility. Although he turned 50 this year, he told the BBC he had resolved not to write an “old man’s piece.” His forthcoming opera at the Royal Opera in February is “Anna Nicole,” which he described at the Upbeat Live talk Saturday as mostly a “quite jolly” operatic farce in which the Playboy playmate marries a geezer in a wheelchair but that turns tragic at the end.

The big, bodacious first two chords of “Hammered Out” are Anna's theme, but after that, “Single Ladies” rules. The rhythms are driving and exciting. The orchestra is used as a kind of jazz big band. The piece has been revised since the summer, hammered down from 15 minutes to under nine.

An amusing video on YouTube shows a broadcast of the Proms premiere with Beyoncé’s voice overlaid, which makes conductor David Robertson look a little foolish. I don’t think Mälkki would have that problem. She strutted her way through “Hammered Out” with the compellingly jerky moves of a dancer on a Beyoncé video.

But she was also all business. Like Boulez, Mälkki conducts without a baton and respects transparency. Her rhythmic gestures are precise and energizing. A product of the same conducting program in Helsinki attended by Esa-Pekka Salonen, she has the trademark self-confidence of Finnish conductors.

The program, however, was quite peculiar for a Modernist or anyone else. On the heels of “Hammered Out” came Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1, played by a chamber orchestra and with concertmaster Martin Chalifour as soloist.

Chalifour Chalifour remained sophisticated, crisp and understated, and Mälkki kept textures light and airy. The Adagio has one of those inspired Mozartean melodies that help promote the image of an adolescent composer as cherub bathed in enchanted glow (Mozart was 17 when he wrote it). This lithe performance did that image no harm.

Next came a Nietzschean knockout. Richard Strauss was 32 when he wrote “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (which actually made Turnage the old man of the program). Everyone knows its sunrise opening, thanks to “2001.” The Disney organ vibrated its low Cs. The timpani wacked triplets. The brass exploded. The huge C-major climax burst forth from the orchestra like it could in few places on Earth, thanks to Disney’s acoustics.

Mälkki went in for details, revealing Strauss’ wondrous intricacies but also mercilessly revealing his overwriting as well. Perhaps we’ve needed a woman on the podium all along to debunk the “Superman” excesses of this otherwise irresistibly glorious score.

The science section, a fanciful fugue on a 12-tone subject (advanced thinking, to be sure, in 1896) came across as brainy and brawny. A Viennese waltz for Zarathustra had cream and gleam, in part thanks to Chalifour, back in the concertmaster’s seat, and his suave playing of the violin solos.

Presently on a meet-and-greet with American orchestras, Mälkki is saddled with too much unimaginative music. This woman who will conduct the remarkable spectral music of Gérard Grisey in Paris next is asked to accompany Grieg’s Piano Concerto in Houston over Thanksgiving. But let the L.A. Phil live up to its reputation as no country for old men. May she return to show us what she really can do.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Top, Susanna Mälkki conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday afternoon.  Below, violinist Martin Chalifour. Credit: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times.