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

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

November 14, 2010 |  3:00 pm

Malkki
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.

 

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