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Turnage and Strauss overwhelm Mozart in the Walt Disney Concert Hall November 19, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.

The delicate works of Mozart can be easily overwhelmed in a concert programme by more dynamic outpourings of composers in subsequent generations.  Conductor Susanna Mälkki’s debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra was a poignant reminder of this potential trap, with Mozart’s first violin concerto sandwiched between tours de force of high drama by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Strauss. 

The opening work in the Walt Disney Concert Hall on November 14th was the US premiere of Hammered Out by British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage.  Co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and the BBC Proms, it debuted at the Proms last August with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. 

Hammered Out is a high octane potpourri of forceful rhythms that characterise the vitality of a modern urban lifestyle.  After opening with an ear-shattering declaration by a hammer on an auto brake drum, the work chugs along inexorably like a train and morphs into a variety of rhythms that belie the influences of Gershwin and Morricone.  The transitions are sometimes openly mischievous.  Mälkki clearly wielded a tight grip on rhythmic movement in this 15-minute work, with the LA Phil resolutely and obediently in tow. 

Compared with his 27 concertos for the piano, Mozart’s repertoire of five violin concertos appears decidedly thin.  This is somewhat surprising, since his father Leopold wrote an early book of instruction on playing the violin, and Mozart himself must have been an accomplished performer on the instrument as concertmaster in Salzburg.  Nevertheless, they are delicate gems among Mozart’s volume of works. 

Although the first violin concerto in B-flat major, K. 207 was originally thought to have been written together with the other four in 1775, scholars now seem to agree that Mozart might have completed it two years earlier.  It is unusual in that it has only three movements, with no customary minuet or rondo. 

The soloist with the LA Phil was Martin Chalifour, Principal Concertmaster of the orchestra, and a native of Quebec, Canada.  His unassuming rapport with the orchestra is evident from the beginning of the graceful first movement and complements Mälkki’s subtle feminine touch. 

Mozart’s slow movements are neither evocative like Mahler’s, nor decadently sentimental like Rachmaninov’s, but rather gently soothing.  Handling the Adagio much like a pensive stroll, Chalifour quickly dispels any doubts about his virtuosity in the fast-paced Presto, which requires a high degree of dexterity. 

Also Sprach Zarathustra, a tone poem in nine sections by Richard Strauss, is one of those works which do not lend themselves to full appreciation in a recording.  The whirring double bass and contrabassoon passage that precedes the well-known dramatic entrance of the brass in the “Introduction” section is often inaudible except in the live setting of a concert hall. 

In Mälkki’s collaboration with the LA Phil, not only did the opening come to life, but it delivered a near-seismic impact that sounded as if it was about to collapse the stage on which the orchestra was sitting. 

Beyond the dramatic opening, the rest of the tone poem is unfamiliar except to dedicated devotees of Strauss.  Of course, it doesn’t help that the three-note “sunrise” theme has become an important part of popular culture in the last three decades, through Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eumir Deodato’s Grammy winner in 1973. 

Loosely based on Nietzsche’s philosophical treatise of the same name, Also Sprach Zarathustra offers plenty of scope for a competent orchestra to show its expressiveness.  Its meanderings through a variety of structures, harmonies and rhythms can be testing for a conductor.  Susanna Mälkki rose to the challenge with her crisp and precise conducting style, in an interpretation that neither overwhelms nor understates.  The LA Phil responded warmly. 

From the lyrical passage for full orchestra in the section “Of the Forest-dwellers” to the depths of despair in “Dirge”, the orchestra maintains a fine tension between passion and restraint.  It is in “The Dance Song”, in which the philosopher Zarathustra gives himself up to the joys of life with wild abandon, that Mälkki’s firm grasp of rhythm comes to the fore. 

The work ends, in sharp contrast to its dramatic opening, with a sheepish and creepy chord repeated on piccolo, flutes and oboes, tapering off to an unsatisfactory resolution of the philosopher’s intellectual plight. 

According to the programme notes, the LA Phil first performed Also Sprach Zarathustra in 1929, with Eugene Goosens conducting.  I can’t help but feel that he would have been proud of Susanna Mälkki’s tribute on November 14th.  In a profession dominated by flamboyant males, the likes of Marin Alsop and Susanna Mälkki are a breath of fresh air. 

From being a cellist in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Mälkki has come a long way on the podium.  Her debut with the LA Phil shows that she will go far in her conducting career.