Mälkki, in an empty hall, makes a full impression

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The concert could have been better – at my end. Instead of hearing Susanna Mälkki and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra on Friday night from a socially-distanced seat in the acoustically admirable Maison symphonique, I experienced the concert as a live webcast though a circa-2013 MacBook Air.

Which sounds better than my iPhone. I think.

Having issued that disclaimer, I am inclined to believe that this Paris-based Finnish conductor has not lost her spot on the short list of candidates to succeed Kent Nagano as music director of the MSO. She clearly loves music and is able to communicate her sympathies lucidly from the podium.

Mälkki, 51, has another qualification, fluent French, which was on display in a pre-recorded spoken introduction to the program of a little more than an hour. YouTube evidence suggests that her English also is a good deal better than passable.

So is her Debussy, whose Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun opened this no-intermission program lasting a little more than an hour. Sounds were silky and subdued, but not inert. Mälkki captured the sensuous essence of the score without sacrificing momentum. Albert Brouwer was the sinuous solo flute.

Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll as expanded to small-orchestra dimensions by the composer is another piece that is less about forward motion than maintaining a gentle continuum. The tempo was slow and rubato was dangerously abundant. A lush texture made amends. There was a golden horn solo from Denys Derome.

Between these bookends we heard Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, an intensely dramatic work with lyrical and monumental elements. Fortissimo attacks had muscle and strings had body. Remarkable what a midsize ensemble, its members duly distanced, can achieve.

There was no audience and therefore no applause, except what the musicians supplied themselves. It was curious to see Mälkki, all smiles, bow respectfully to the silent digital multitudes.

Yet it cannot be said that the absence of a live crowd had any inhibiting effect on her podium style, which combined cues and caresses with apt facial expressions. The players seemed to be into the concert, and why not? The MSO is one of the most productive recording ensembles in North America. Playing in an empty hall with the microphones on is probably not such a strange sensation.

The orchestra has been split in two, in the interests of practical distancing and spreading the work around. This was Orchestra B. Interesting that all string players but one wore a mask.

The musicians at the end of the concert declined her signal to stand, a traditional sign of respect implying that the person on the podium deserves the credit. It would be wrong to read too much into this. Here was a conductor who had quarantined for two weeks to meet federal guidelines and then had the circumstances of two of three concerts changed suddenly by the province.

There will be pay-per-view webcasts of her Wednesday and Thursday concerts on Oct. 6 and Oct. 20. My MacBook is ready.

 

For more information about the MSO’s upcoming concerts, please visit www.osm.ca

 

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About Author

Arthur Kaptainis has been a classical music critic since 1986. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Musical Toronto. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto. Since 2019, Arthur is co-editor of La Scena Musicale.

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