Mälkki returns and an engaging flute concerto achieves liftoff with CSO

Fri Mar 22, 2024 at 1:46 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson performed the world premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s Flute Concerto No. 2 Thursday night with Susanna Mälkki conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Susanna Mälkki returned to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night to lead her first local concert in seven years. That’s an inexcusably long interregnum for one of the CSO’s finest podium guests, a musician who has led consistently excellent concerts since her debut in 2011, including a stunning Sibelius Second at Ravinia. Whatever the outcome turns out to be with the CSO’s music director appointment, Mälkki—who routinely conducts the world’s leading orchestras—showed once again that she deserves to be a regular presence at Orchestra Hall.

The main order of business on this week’s program was the world premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s Flute Concerto No. 2, which was commissioned by the CSO for principal flutist Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson.

Though one wouldn’t know it from the relative absence of his music in Chicago, Liebermann is among the most performed of living American composers. Like many composers of his generation, the prolific New York native was dissatisfied with the serial academicism that dominated his college years. His own music evolved into a more tonal and approachable style that is often unapologetically neo-Romantic, as in his Piano Concerto No. 2. 

Liebermann is most renown for his flute compositions. His Flute Sonata has been a repertoire cornerstone for over three decades, with 25 recordings to date. His (First) Flute Concerto, premiered by James Galway in 1987, quickly became equally popular and Liebermann has also penned a piccolo concerto and a concerto for flute and harp.

Based on the resounding success of Thursday night’s premiere of Liebermann’s Flute Concerto No. 2, the American composer has come up with another winner. This engaging, richly tuneful and soloist-friendly work is a virtual certainty to become a popular addition to the scant flute concerto repertory.

The Second Flute Concerto is cast in a similar structure and style as its predecessor. Skillfully scored for large orchestra, Liebermann’s Op. 142 is a concise work of 20 minutes in the traditional three movements with two slowish sections and a fast and brilliant finale.

The first movement (Largo—Moderato) begins quietly with a lyrical, somewhat pensive solo by the flute protagonist; that theme is echoed by the orchestra’s strings and then repeated alternately again by the soloist and strings. The flute soloist continue in thoughtful mode, with phrases that lead with upward rippling notes. A mellow section for strummed strings undergirds a more elaborate passage for the flutist, whose solo music accelerates into an imposing orchestral tutti. After a marimba solo, the lush string theme reappears, segueing into a Bernard Herrmann-esque passage for malign lower brass alternating with the soloist, which leads to a quiet ending.

The second movement (Largo—Movendo) introduces a soaring new theme—first for strings, then moving to winds—that is even more richly upholstered than the lyrical motif in the opening movement. The soloist enters with a confiding and expressive solo, rendered like cooling balm by Höskuldsson. The solo passages accelerate and the music become increasingly impassioned, building to a slow-moving majestic climax. A lovely duetted passage for the solo flute and harp follows, cast in a characteristic Liebermann aura of glowing rumination and most sensitively played by Höskuldsson. There is a brief cadenza and the concerto moves without pause into the Animato finale.

Concluding movements sometimes seem to be Liebermann’s Achilles’ heel, and the cartoonish main theme flirts with banality, complete with a laughing clarinet in the orchestra. That apart, the closing movement provides crucial contrast to the first two sections with ample opportunities for solo brilliance, and Höskuldsson threw off the mounting fireworks with unruffled bravura and radiant tone. After a contrasting lyrical section, the fast tempo returns and some high-stepping orchestral music and increasingly virtuosic runs for the soloist race to a blazing and effective coda.

One could hardly imagine a finer sendoff for this new concerto than that provided by Höskuldsson, Mälkki and the orchestra. The CSO flutist brought his customary technical gleam and interpretive sensitivity to the score that his friend Liebermann composed so ideally for him. Mälkki balanced with consummate skill, tamping down the potential for schmaltz and directing the large forces flexibly with energy and precision.

Lowell Liebermann’s Flute Concerto No. 2 will likely have a long and happy existence in the concert hall. Few CSO premieres receive the kind of tumultuous cheers and extended ovations as did Liebermann’s concerto Thursday night, with Höskuldsson, Mälkki and the composer repeatedly recalled to the stage.

Susanna Mälkki conducted the CSO in music of Wagner, Liebermann and Mahler Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The concerto premiere was preceded by music of Wagner. The Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin is one of the less-often excerpted Wagner curtain-raisers, and kudos to Mälkki for reviving it to open this program. 

The music is mined from a scene late in the opera wherein the title knight is revealed to be a member of the Holy Grail. Mälkki led a glowing, luminous account of this radiant music, drawing violin playing of hushed delicacy in the opening section (and closing reprise) and building inexorably to a majestic yet tempered climax.

Mahler‘s Symphony No. 4 closed the evening. In this, the largest canvas she has yet conducted in Chicago, Mälkki showed herself a compelling and individual Mahlerian.

This was not your grandfather’s emotive, big-boned CSO Mahler. Perhaps evincing a more Northern sensibility, Mälkki led a lithe and refined reading that made Mahler’s vision emerge with clarity while maintaining the essential intimacy of Mahler’s sunniest and most lightly scored symphony (by his standards). She also moved the four horns to the left side of the stage rather than in their usual place behind the winds.

While this was a spacious Mahler Fourth, Mälkki kept a forward-flowing pulse. In the first movement, her trim direction conveyed the main theme’s off-center good cheer with its antic sleigh-bells. The romantic second theme was nicely understated, crisply dispatched by basses and cellos. Her acute balancing often bought out intriguing wind and brass lines that usually stay submerged. Contrasts were well pointed and the whirling coda made strong impact.

In the second movement, Robert Chen’s tuned-up second violin provided more jaunty elegance than the unsettling “devil’s fiddle” flavor Mahler requests. (In fairness, few concertmasters really want to “play rough” in this music.) Mälkki gave the orchestra plenty of space to luxuriate in Mahler’s evocative scoring. Unfortunately, solo opportunities were hit and miss on this occasion—pallid oboe playing (William Welter was off) and accurate but bland solos by principal horn Mark Almond, who brought little poetry or subtlety to his highlighted moments. The three clarinets (Stephen Williamson, John Bruce Yeh and Gregory Smith) provided a welcome infusion of personality with playing of rustic panache in a dancey second trio. 

The Poco adagio was more emotionally restrained and less weighty than usual, sounding oddly like Carl Nielsen at times. Though here too Mälkki effectively underlined scoring and thematic contrasts, with an eruptive tutti to herald the transition into the finale. (The principal horn made little of his solos here either, or in the duetted passage with oboe.)

Ying Fang was the soprano soloist in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with Susanna Mälkki and the CSO. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Mahler 4 performances often come to grief in the conclusion when a soprano soloist sings of a child’s naive yet affecting view of the afterlife as a heavenly feast (with Christian allegorical overtones). 

On Thursday, it looked initially like this might be another one of those times. Ying Fang has impressed locally with her Mozart performances at Lyric Opera as Zerlina and Pamina. While the Chinese soprano possesses the requisite light soprano and youthful tone, her singing was unevenly projected with the German text fitfully inaudible, even from the front of the lower balcony. (Granted, the hall acoustic can be unhelpful for high voices.)

Fang seemed to gain in security and confidence as the movement unfolded. With Mälkki drawing out the final stanza sensitively, the soprano managed to close the performance with singing that conveyed the right note of peaceful, relaxed contentment as the music slowly faded to silence. Miraculously, the audience held their applause until the conductor lowered her arm.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wheaton College, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Center. cso.org

Posted in Performances

6 Responses to “Mälkki returns and an engaging flute concerto achieves liftoff with CSO”

  1. Posted Mar 23, 2024 at 10:23 pm by CCRreader

    Spot on review. Thank you for telling it like it is. The CSO should be called out on its unfortunate and sometimes bizarre personnel decisions over the last few years.

  2. Posted Mar 24, 2024 at 12:09 pm by Mike T

    Saw the Wheaton concert on Friday, very nice performance of the Mahler, and the concerto was pleasant and well done. I can see why the CSO enjoys playing at Edman Chapel, the sound is beautiful, although the bathroom situation is a lot tougher than at Orchestra Hall.

  3. Posted Mar 24, 2024 at 7:47 pm by Alan Goldberg

    Having just attended the Sunday afternoon performance of this program, I can report that in the Mahler, the solo playing of both Mark Almond on horn and Lora Schaefer on oboe were superb this afternoon. I find Schaefer’s playing consistently eloquent and lovely in tone.

    As for Almond, I did find his playing earlier in the season to be a bit reticent, but today was his most forceful and beautiful playing yet. I was a big fan of David Cooper and greatly disappointed at his not being granted tenure, but I believe Almond is growing into his role. (And Cooper himself had some problems in his first year in that chair.)

  4. Posted Mar 25, 2024 at 8:34 am by david m novak

    This was an extraordinary concert. The program was well-constructed; the playing was superb (with one exception); Malkki’s Mahler was conducting at its finest (in startling contrast to D. Harding’s jumbled mess of the same work in Cleveland a few months back).

    Malkki and Jurowski top my list of suggestions for Muti’s successor with van Zweden also a possibility.

    Back to that one exception. I fear we are returning to the final years of Dale Clevenger’s tenure. For almost a decade one went to every concert hoping against hope that Clevenger would not flub things up or better yet that he would be on vacation. A miserable way to spend an evening. Sunday’s performance showed the current horn section to be the CSO’s weak point.

    Aside from the horns, the orchestra was at its best, a testimonial to Malkki’s skills.

    David M. Novak

  5. Posted Mar 25, 2024 at 6:23 pm by james

    Wonderful concert. I agree with every point in Mr. Johnson’s fine review. I was particularly impressed with the conductor, the flute soloist, and the principal clarinet.

  6. Posted Mar 26, 2024 at 6:15 pm by Mike

    I was at Saturday’s show with my soon to be three-year-old son all the way back in 3F section I. I agree about “glowing, luminous account of … radiant music” of the first piece. It perfectly suits Malkki’s tasteful style. I didn’t know Wagner had anything like that in him, but I don’t really listen to Wagner.

    Hrusa is still my preference for MD but I really like Malkki and I wouldn’t be disappointed if they award her the post like I will be if they announce that it’s going to Makela.

    As for the flute concerto, it’s so refreshing when a world premiere is music someone would actually want to hear again. The last world premiere I saw at CSO’s house was “Outscape” and listening to a half hour of that was a chore. By contrast, Saturday’s recital of the flute concerto was a lot of fun and had some fine shredding. Stevie Ray Hoskuldsson must have some big lungs and really expensive metal to be able to carry the low-end opening notes all the way to the back of the house where we were.

    I had never knowingly heard a single note of Mahler 4 before Saturday. Did it sound like it’s supposed to? I have no idea. Did it sound good? Yes! Whatever Malkki was doing with it worked for us on Saturday. One observation I do feel qualified to make is that the way Malkki adjusted the tempo and dynamics on the reprises of the flute and sleigh bell riff had the same sort of table-clearing feel as how she handled a similar repeating motif in Scheherazade when she did it here a few years ago. I know Scheherazade well enough to know it worked then. I believe that might have been my first CSO concert.

    I don’t remember hearing an oboe solo so I’ll concede that might have been lackluster. What I heard from Mark Almond on Saturday sounded good all around. I sure wouldn’t call it “bland”. It’s possible he’s finding his sea legs between performances.

    I can say I had the same experience with Ying Fang that the reviewer did, but I don’t blame her. This is a corner Mahler orchestrated himself into. The music calls for someone with a light, childlike voice…who can somehow get that sound to carry out over a Mahler-sized orchestra. In my opinion CSO made the right tradeoff of balance vs timbre. My son said his favorite part of the whole concert was “the lady. She was singing” so I presume he agrees with me.

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