When Susanna Mälkki signed up to conduct LA Phil in a program of J.S. Bach by way of Webern, Richard Strauss and the US première of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Cello Concerto en forme de “pas de trois” with Robert DeMaine as the soloist and Tero Saarinen Company from Helsinki as the choreographic component, she likely knew it was going to be a grueling task. 

Susanna Mälkki © Simon Fowler
Susanna Mälkki
© Simon Fowler

The week before she was scheduled to conduct NY Phil in a program headlined by the city’s concert première of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Helix along with Debussy’s La Mer and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with Baiba Skride. The New York Times noted the “vanishingly rare sight at the Philharmonic… of two women appearing together as concerto soloist and conductor”, and raved about the performances.

The task at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, however, was suddenly made substantially more daunting when DeMaine fell ill only days before rehearsals would begin and a substitute had to be found. It wasn’t like finding someone to play the Dvořák or Schumann concertos. The piece requires a cellist who can precisely handle the relentlessly exposed and nearly impossible to play fast solo passages while still projecting rhapsodic lines of pure emotion. 

Since it was premiered in 1968 by Siegfried Palm (with choreography by Ivan Sertic) two years before the composer’s suicide at 52, only 11 other cellists have played Zimmermann’s half hour-long four-movement concerto. Only five have played it since 2000, and there were only two cellists who might have had the piece in their fingers not to mention their chops. So the Philharmonic did a very creative thing, rotating the solo duties between LA Phil Associate Principal Ben Fong and two ringers, Eric Byers from the Calder Quartet and Timothy Loo from the Lyris Quartet. In bumping up the number of cellists who have played it to 15 they were each not just very good but spellbinding in their different but harrowing responsibilities.

As it was, trying to watch the three dancers cavorting elegantly on two irregular sections cut out on either side of the orchestra (separated by illuminated stalagmites of graduated height like the light towers at LAX) or on a raised stage behind them became such an effort that listening became something of a secondary consideration. Visually speaking it was more exciting to check out all the different instruments Zimmermann uses, including a sexy alto sax, an even sexier electric bass and an extremely generous helping of percussion tended by five percussionists. Mälkki seemed to have it all under control and the piece went along without any obvious hitches.

Mälkki had opened the evening with a reading of Webern’s Bach orchestration that was unusually beautiful, more Stokowski lushness than abstract lines, less Klangfarbenmelodie and more music. She followed up after the intermission with a reading of Strauss’s unaccountably popular Alpine Symphony (there are more recordings of it than of Don Quixote) by working together with the Philharmonic to create flow, placing the big audiophile moments within a gently exhilarating lyrical intelligibility. No conductor can really manage an orchestra of the size which filled the full Disney Hall stage to overflowing, although a conductor can transmit feedback from the audience to the orchestra on what is working. The piece pretty much defies spontaneous surge, and yet when Mälkki urged LA Phil to be more impetuous or passionate, they responded. As a sign of just how loud Strauss wants his orchestra to play, and how loud LA Phil can play, when the woodwinds expected outbursts from the massive brass phalanx across their rear, many put ear plugs in until the assault was over. It saved their hearing but when they had loud solo passages to play themselves before they removed the plugs they tended to overblow. Under the circumstances it was not surprising that there was not one real pianissimo the whole evening.

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