After Jaap van Zweden, the New York Philharmonic’s Music Director, announced he is leaving his position at the end of the 2023-2024 season, any guest conductor is now eyed and evaluated as his potential replacement. With her significant experience and her devotion to contemporary music, Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki is perhaps one of the strongest candidates. With both the orchestra and the public acting as judges, her Thursday night Carnegie Hall performance at the helm of the Philharmonic had all the trappings and appearance of an unofficial audition.

Susanna Mälkki
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Mälkki began the evening with two fairly recent American works, both at least occasionally including reminiscences of the Stravinskian idiom. Adolphus Hallstork’s An American Port of Call captures “the strident (and occasionally tender and even mysterious)” energy of the bustling port city of Norfolk, Virginia, that one could picture as if listening to a movie score. The orchestra seemed to take real pleasure in rendering Hallstork’s well-orchestrated piece, imbued with rhythm and harmony, beautifully balancing sensuous and delicate moments. 

Branford Marsalis and the New York Philharmonic
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Branford Marsalis was the soloist in John Adams’ Saxophone Concerto. Meant to be an homage to the great jazz saxophonists of the past, it is a work that allowed Marsalis to showcase his remarkable virtuosity and stamina rather than to bring forward those fleeting and unconstrained moments of beauty that are the hallmark of great jazz-infused compositions. Mälkki conducted with elegant, energetic gestures through the harmonic and rhythmic complexities – pulsating woodwind waves, rich syncopations – typical for Adams’ busy scores. Nonetheless, despite some delicate interplay between solo saxophone and clarinet, the communication gates between protagonist and orchestra didn’t seem to be fully opened and a sensation of unsustainable longueurs was difficult to pass over.

The New York Philharmonic double bass section
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

For a conductor who was for several years music director of the Pierre Boulez-founded Ensemble Intercontemporain, Mälkki’s account of Sibelius’ Symphony no. 5 in E flat major allowed surprisingly many segments of warm, brass-and-timpani-driven Romanticism to balance out a detached handling of all those moments of effusion or self-doubt. At the same time, from the original horn-intoned motif to the final sledgehammer chords separated by long cesurae, the work’s underlying trajectory was drawn without hesitations. Always clear and precise in her indications, maintaining well-thought tempo relations between sections – so crucial in Sibelius’ music – Mälkki paid great attention to details. The emergence of the Scherzo from the Tempo molto moderato in the revised first movement was beautifully shaped. Judith LeClair’s elegiac bassoon solo was the expected turning point. Darker currents were palpable beneath the classical lightness evoked in the Andante. In the Finale’s “swan hymn”, Mälkki successfully demanded cellos and double basses to compensate for the prominent horns’ sound.

Susanna Mälkki conducts the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Of the several Philharmonic performances, scattered across multiple venues, I have attended this season, this was one of the most distinguished. Of course, the glorious sound of Carnegie Hall (the orchestra’s home for seven decades until 1962) played a major contribution. Nevertheless, there was, more than occasionally, a perceptible chemistry between Mälkki and the orchestra (admittedly, with many of the principal players absent). Let’s see what the future brings...