When Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki made her debut on the podium of the San Francisco Symphony in April of 2012, she prepared a program that combined the lush romanticism of Jean Sibelius’ first symphony (Opus 39 in E minor) with the vigorous modernism of Sergei Prokofiev’s third piano concerto (Opus 26 in C major) and “Modulations,” a prime example of Gérard Grisey’s abstract approach to the underlying physics of sound itself. Last night Mälkki returned to Davies Symphony Hall, and this time her ability to evoke richly colored lush sonorities could be found in her modern selections. Charles Griffes’ orchestration of “The White Peacock,” originally the first of a suite of piano pieces entitled Roman Sketches (Opus 7), was followed by the vivid coloration of Béla Bartók’s third piano concerto. These complementary approaches to inventive orchestration were followed, after the intermission, by the retrospective classicism of Johannes Brahms Opus 73 symphony in D major (the second).
As a composer capable of imaginatively scoring his piano music, Griffes is up there with Maurice Ravel. Indeed, his work as a composer might have followed a different path had he crossed paths with Ravel; but this was not to be. Born in Elmira, New York in 1884, Griffes traveled to Berlin in 1903 to study with the pianist Ernst Jedliczka at the Stern conservatory. This turned out to be an unsatisfying experience, improved only by a brief mentorship under Engelbert Humperdinck. By 1907 he was back in the New York area as director of music studies at the Hackley School for boys in Tarrytown.
Had Griffes set his sights on Paris, rather than Berlin, he might have been less disappointed. He might have stayed longer and become active in the rise of a modernist movement in which orchestral color was as important as thematic and harmonic inventiveness. Listening to the orchestral version of “The White Peacock,” one can imagine Griffes as part of the circle of composers that Sergei Diaghilev recruited for his Ballets Russes. As things stand, we can only assume that he came to know those composers remotely through access to their scores.
Thus, it is no surprise that, over the course of the brief five minutes of “The White Peacock,” one encounters suggestions of the “environmental place-setting techniques” in two of the scores for the Ballets Russes, Igor Stravinsky’s music for “The Firebird” and Maurice Ravel’s for “Daphnis and Chloé” (both created for choreography by Michel Fokine). Those suggestions come primarily from drawing upon a broad variety of instruments but using each instrument sparingly, almost like a sharply characteristic spice that defines a recipe. One could appreciate Griffes’ technique through the impeccable transparency of Mälkki’s conducting technique. She clearly knew where every individual sound was supposed to be and was always adjusting the balance to bring each of those sounds to the level of attention. The result recalled her meticulous command of Grisey’s abstractions of the physical sound spectrum, now applied to music that was much more explicitly denotative.
The domain of abstraction was then left to the Bartók concerto, for which Mälkki was joined by soloist Jeremy Denk. Bartók’s appreciation of the expressiveness of individual instrument sonorities was as strong as Griffes’, and his catalog of symphonic works includes no end of innovative combinations of those sonorities. However, he composed his third concerto while he was dying in 1945; and, because his finances were spare, he wanted to have music that his wife could perform as a way of making ends meet.
It would thus be fair to say that, while there is no shortage of modernist tropes in Bartók’s third piano concerto, it is still the most affable of his works for piano and orchestra. Even the composer’s sense of wit, which in many of his pieces has a sharp edge of irony, has softened to a teasing jocularity, particularly when it comes to motifs bouncing from one instrument to another. In that respect it is also worth nothing that this is one of those concertos in which the piano is “first among equals.” One is always aware of the piano soloist at the center of it all; but the life of the concerto comes from the sonorities orbiting around that center, so to speak. Here again Mälkki left a deep impression through her overall command of resources, realizing the concerto as a “full spectrum” of sounds rather than a “mere conversation” between a piano and an “accompanying” ensemble.
At this point it would be worth making a few observations about how Mälkki gets what she wants. She does not use a baton. Instead, she employs a full-body technique. Often each of her two arms is communicating with a different section of the orchestra, while her entire upper-body technique always seems to establish the context for all of those details she is in the process of managing.
It was therefore no surprise that her technique would be as successful with Brahms as it was with the instrumental details during the first half of the program. Viewed in his own time as a stodgy conservative, Brahms espoused the classical ideals of developing elaborate structures with a limited number of basic building blocks. In Opus 73 those building blocks are motifs (far more elementary than any of the motifs Richard Wagner dreamed up for the dramatic objectives of his operas). Those motifs pervade all the instrumental lines in his score, but the blending of those lines matters more than their individual characteristics.
Thus, Mälkki’s approach to blending in Brahms nicely complemented her approach to transparency in the scores of Griffes and Bartók. This was very much a performance in which maintaining the proper balance between parts and whole was always paramount. Once that balance was established, it could then be modulated, through both dynamics and rhythm, to establish an overall “landscape of climaxes.” The result was a fulfillment of that classical ideal of realizing a large work in multiple movements as a single integrated design (or “journey,” to emphasize the critical role of time-consciousness), Brahms as we were meant to listen to him.