Several themes converge on The Philadelphia Orchestra’s most recent subscription program. The concert featured the season’s first Beethoven, anticipating a deep dive into the composer’s canon in preparation for the 250th anniversary of his birth. With Susanna Mälkki on the podium and Betsy Jolas on the bill, the evening highlighted the orchestra’s ongoing commitment to gender equity.

Gil Shaham © Luke Ratray
Gil Shaham
© Luke Ratray

Jolas – alive and well and living in Paris – proved that it’s never too late for a debut. The composer turned 93 in August, but the Philadelphians had never played her before turning to A Little Summer Suite, written in 2015 for the Berlin Philharmonic. Perhaps with good reason: Jolas’ thorny, episodic style is not a natural fit for the rich, blended Philadelphia sound. Still, the forces made a noble effort to realize the composer’s intentions, particularly in the litany of percussive elements that regularly punctuate the score. Kudos to Angela Zator Nelson for her beguiling work on the rain stick.

The occasional piano riff entered into the composition like a wisp of smoke, fostering a jazzlike environment that suited the wandering nature of the bagatelle. Mälkki did her best to create a sense of unity in the piece’s “strolling movements” – Mussorgsky was clearly on Jolas’ mind – but the 12-minute tone poem ultimately resisted attempts to tame. Take it on its own terms, as a wild, frustrating and occasionally beautiful summation of the composer’s many decades at the forefront of contemporary music.

Some audience grumbles were heard about the inaccessibility of this curious overture, but any vexation dissipated when Gil Shaham appeared to perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major. Here was an artist at the top of his game, his fingers moving as quickly as his mind – dextrous but never too flashy, with a penetratingly rich tone that nevertheless could be spiky when needed. The lean, focused orchestra ideally complemented the cadenzas, and more than many recent conductor-soloist pairings, Shaham and Mälkki seemed like real partners in music. A successful concerto performance needs equal strength from both forces at work and Beethoven had it here.

Shaham is clearly a generous colleague. During bows, he often demurred to Mälkki and went out of his way to acknowledge orchestra members who made notable contributions to the performance. He also shared his encore with concertmaster David Kim: the gavotte from Jean-Marie Leclair’s Sonata for 2 Violins in E minor. Shaham ceded the flashier music to Kim, focusing instead on establishing the melodic line. It was a lovely gesture and for a few minutes, Verizon Hall felt as intimate as a chamber music salon.

Mälkki fully came into her own with an inspired performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 5, taken at a thrillingly fast clip, with hardly a moment of rest between movements. It clocked in nearly ten minutes shorter than the advertised 50-minute duration, and was surely one of the most fleet renditions I’ve ever encountered. Her lyrical approach to the Andante segued effortlessly into a jarring, occasionally upsetting Allegro marcato, which seemed to tap into the uncertainties of the piece’s wartime composition. The Adagio proved devastatingly pensive and the finale – which sometimes feels hopeful – here spoke of more uncertainty to come. Perhaps not the mood elevator one might expect on a holiday weekend, but in terms of musical vision, it was as complete an interpretation as I’ve heard so far this season.

The capacity crowd barely waiting for silence to roar their applause. Mälkki has not been heard in these parts since her debut in 2014. She should be invited back as often as possible.


****1