Conductor: Susanna Mälkki
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35
Baiba Skride: Violin
Debussy: La mer: Trois esquisses symphoniques
Sometimes a new beginning feels more like a fond look back at the past, such as this week, when I started my 2018 performance dance card with my first opera love, Giacomo Puccini and his beloved Tosca, at the Metropolitan Opera last Tuesday night, and 48 hours later, with my first instrumental classical music love, Piotr Tchaikovsky and his beloved violin concerto, right next door at the David Geffen Hall. There’s really not much more I could have hoped for.
On the other hand, things have obviously changed a lot and for the better since those long-gone formative years as on Thursday evening the New York Philharmonic had not one but two unapologetically brilliant women headlining its program with the long-overdue return of Finnish guest conductor Susanna Mälkki and new-to-me-but-clearly-not-to-the-world Latvian violinist Baiba Skride.
My main motivation for attending the concert was the New York premiere of Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Helix”, but I certainly did not mind starting my evening with Tchaikovsky’s dazzling violin concerto and ending it with Claude Debussy’s ground-breaking masterpiece La Mer, the wide-ranging appeal of this line-up being all the more evident at the sight of an impressively filled concert hall for a week night.
Although his famously challenging violin concerto was originally deemed unplayable by no less than esteemed violinist, academic, conductor, composer and legendary teacher Leopold Auer, Tchaikovsky wisely, if rather uncharacteristically, stood his ground and the rest became music history. On Thursday night, Baiba Skride joined countless other violinists in proving that the concerto is definitely playable as long as you have the virtuosic skills needed to pull it off. Her performance was technically confident and emotionally engaging, making sure to discreetly emphasize all those unabashedly lyrical lines with grace and energy. Happily treading on very familiar territory, the orchestra expertly back her up, and a wonderful time was had by all.
Becoming acquainted with a new piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen, now in his last year of his three-year appointment as the Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence, is always an exciting event, even if said piece only lasts nine minutes. Described by the composer himself as an “accelerando”, “Helix” uses a large variety of instruments to create one continuous spiral of sounds that will undergo a few intriguing changes in orchestration, but will never lose its sense of purpose. In pure Salonen fashion, this compelling overture was rigorously structured and irresistibly inventive.
The endless possibilities of orchestration were on much wider display with Debussy’s La Mer, which I hadn’t heard in so long that I had almost forgotten what an exhilarating trip it is. Simultaneously aware of the majestic force of the indominable sea as well as mindful of its every movements and colors, Susanna Mälkki drew a downright dynamite performance from the orchestra, which seemed to be itching to show what they could do with such a richly descriptive composition. From tiny exquisite shimmers to formidable splashy waves, that sea was strongly heard, seen and smelled in all its eternal glory right on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and we were all very grateful for it.
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