Another musical Finn on rise at Symphony Hall
In Finland there must be something in the water, the local glogg, or most likely the education system, that has produced vastly disproportionate numbers of contemporary-minded classical musicians and composers, Esa-Pekka Salonen being only the best known among them.
The conductor Susanna Mälkki also trained at Helsinki's Sibelius Academy and since 2006 has held a prized post as music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris. She has been building a reputation internationally with her guest conducting, including a well-received stint last summer at Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival.
Thursday night she made an auspicious Boston Symphony Orchestra debut, stepping in to replace Yuri Temirkanov, who has withdrawn from all of his recent North American concerts. She preserved most of the Russian conductor's program (Ravel's "Tombeau de Couperin," Stravinsky's "Pulcinella" Suite, and Debussy's "Petite Suite") though she has replaced the closing work, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9, with Stravinsky's Symphony in C.
On the podium Mälkki projects a kind of grounded and unostentatious musicianship, telegraphed through immaculately clear physical gestures. That her day job keeps her steeped in challenging contemporary scores must help her turn to older music with a kind of acuity and penetration. The Ravel was rewardingly vivid, though there was an extra level of stylistic comfort and flair that was still missing. The "Pulcinella" suite fared better, full of incisive gestures and the right kind of dry snap, with the satirical volleys of trombonist Toby Oft and bassist Edwin Barker lighting up the famous Vivo movement. Under Mälkki's baton, the Debussy suite was unsentimental and charming, with the orchestra producing some of its most velvety and plush textures of the evening.
Stravinsky wrote his Symphony in C during an itinerant stretch between 1938 and 1940, beginning the work in Europe and completing it in Beverly Hills. The third movement was actually written in Cambridge, where the composer had arrived to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. (He also married his second wife, Vera, in Bedford.) Mälkki's account Thursday night was crystalline and rhythmically vital. It was as if she wanted you to hear every detail of this densely layered score. The finale had both forward drive but also a sense of structure and pacing that allowed it to build in intensity. The orchestra seemed keenly responsive and oboist John Ferrillo had a particularly big night with several prominent solos, rich in tone and gracefully inflected.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.