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Susanna Malkki makes gentle, assured music with National Symphony

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 12:45 AM

There's been a lot of buzz about Susanna Malkki. The Finnish conductor arrived in Washington to make her National Symphony Orchestra debut Thursday night riding a wave of considerable praise: She's a new-music whiz who leads France's Ensemble Contemporain and conducted the premiere of Kaija Saariaho's most recent stage work, "La Passion de Simone," in 2006, but also has led the Berlin Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestra.

She is not, however, a flashy conductor. For all her model looks and build and energetic gestures - as if forcing the music out of the players - there's something understated about her leadership. The music is assured, but not aggressive. She might be one of those conductors who focuses more on details than on the whole; her phrasing was thoughtful, but entrances sometimes eluded her, and the music was at times leisurely enough to drag a little.

It was still an eminently pleasing concert, furthering a growing impression that this season's NSO programming is generally quite delightful. Malkki led the orchestra backward from the present to the past: from "Parada," a piece by her compatriot, Magnus Lindberg, written in 2002, to the golden Adagio, the opening movement of Mahler's unfinished 10th Symphony, from 1910, and finally to Beethoven. The "Emperor" Concerto concluded the program, with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist.

Lindberg is another Finnish musician who's high on the popularity charts right now, at least in the orchestral world. That status has been cemented by his current two-year stint as composer-in-residence of the New York Philharmonic, which earlier this season presented his large-scale, junk-percussion, genre-testing piece "Kraft."

"Parada" is considerably less of a challenge to an audience: It's an attractive braid of music created by winding two disparate ideas - a fast scherzo and the slow shimmer of strings - into a single whole, now full, now slender, set off with gleaming beads of percussion, tapering at the end to something gentle and warm. It took a big orchestra, including a full complement of percussion, but felt light. For all her emphatic gestures, Malkki has a light touch; she's more about crispness than ear-blasting volume.

That was true in the Mahler, as well. The 10th is in any case not brooding Mahler, but radiant Mahler. The composer bathes in timbres, here, without wallowing in them. His musical thoughts are extended, and the ending is drawn out for minutes, but he doesn't leap from one mood to another or beat his breast with the same force as in some of his earlier works. The piece plumbs the colors of the orchestra and finally evanesces in a long, gentle glow of strings, cellos lurching downward vertiginously, violins shining on a high wistful note above, though a slightly sour piccolo note cast a tiny, thin shadow on what was meant to be a spiritual conclusion.

The "Emperor" is a magisterial statement from Beethoven's prime, from the moment the piano announces its arrival with an insistent repetition of a single high note until it is sure that the listener has gotten the point. Ohlsson offered a combination of fluency and heaviness, at times a little plodding but at other times so fleet-fingered the notes danced. Malkki offered classical Beethoven, carving out the opening lines of the second-movement Adagio with deliberate phrasing, and allowing the transition from first to second movement to come off as a moment of waking, forgetting an old dream and finding oneself in the daylight.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

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