My last encounter with conductor Susanna Mälkki was her debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic two and a half years ago. I was impressed with her crisp style of conducting that delivered near-seismic impact in Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. I predicted she would go far in her career, and am delighted to discover that she has since been the first woman conductor to perform at La Scala, Milan.

Strings of the NJSO © Fred Stucker
Strings of the NJSO
© Fred Stucker

Half of the programme of her performance with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra on Sunday afternoon at the Morristown Mayo Performing Arts Center consisted of symphonic poems by Strauss. Let me say at the outset that, designed as a community theatre, the MAPC is not ideal for orchestral performances. The lack of space in the hall for the full richness of orchestral colours to develop rendered the orchestra’s tone clipped and dry, somewhat akin to what you would expect from a 1950s recording.

The afternoon got off to a rousing start with Don Juan, the symphonic poem often credited with launching the reputation of Richard Strauss as a composer at the young age of 25. Based on Nikolaus Lenau’s verse drama, this is a sympathetic account of the serial philanderer as idealist rather than sinister misogynist, as in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The New Jersey Symphony’s Don Juan was more ebullient than swaggering; more tragic than despicable. The airy gleam of the horns made up for the impoverished strings, and the oboe and solo violin in the episodes depicting the hero’s amorous conquests were voluptuously flirtatious.

For a composer so closely associated with the piano as Debussy, it is surprising that he does not have a concerto for the instrument to his name. The only work that comes close to the description, the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, was withdrawn from performance and publication during rehearsal and never saw the light of day until after his death. It was not through lack of interest, as he continued to revise the score a few times. Did he want to show the world a concerto more revolutionary in approach, or was he afraid of the demands that might be made on him to be soloist in its performance?

The Fantaisie does break new ground. For a start it throws new light on the relationship between soloist and orchestra; it also incorporates fresh and quaint Oriental sonorities. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet clearly understood Debussy’s intentions. Although the piano part had plenty of room for virtuosic display, his playing was almost like a leaf floating on the orchestral pond, as it were, never being in front enough to grab attention. The duets with oboe and cello were particularly delightful. The orchestra, in the meantime, laid a fluid underpinning for the soloist, always moving but never creating waves that roiled him.

The works of Olivier Messiaen are often devoutly Catholic as Strauss’ are secular and non-judgmental. First of his orchestral works to be published, at the age of 21, just as he was finishing studies at the Paris Conservatory, Les offrandes oubliées (“The Forgotten Offerings”) is a case in point. As if wanting to leave nothing to doubt, Messiaen prefaces the score with poetry that puts the music in the clear context of its liturgical origin. The three sections depict “The Cross”, “Sin” (Crucifixion) and “The Eucharist”.

With finely balanced control and stamina, Susanna Mälkki eased the orchestra into the incisively anguished and sustained sound wall, mainly on strings, in the subdued opening. After a violent torrent of body-blows in the middle section, plaintive atonement on strings wrapped up the consignment to eternity in a whirring weep that tapered into a whisper. She brought out all the details of the rich score, leaving nothing in doubt about the deeply evocative meaning of the work.

The concert closed, as it had begun, on a high note – with another work by Strauss. Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”) is a snapshot of the end of an artist’s life. Perhaps paranoiac that his work might be misunderstood, Strauss asked his friend Alexander von Ritter to write poetry to illustrate the events.

Syncopated strings, bassoon and timpani in the opening simulate the dying man’s cardiac arrhythmia as he struggles to keep breathing. Urgent string and woodwind chord progressions lead to a lyrical interlude on oboe, harp, flute and violin, as the affirmation of life takes on the glory of Wagnerian proportions in the transfiguration theme. The end, however, is a mere wistful sigh. While all sections of the orchestra had their moments, as they did in the previous three works in the programme, the lower strings in this work stood out in their clarity and emphasis.

Kudos to the New Jersey Symphony and Susanna Mälkki for an afternoon of variety delivered with great finesse.

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