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Susanna Malkki, CSO combine for fascinating program of Ades, Stravinsky

Finnish conductor SusannMalkki (pictured 2009 with Ensemble Intercontemporain) led Chicago Symphony OrchestrThursday night program Stravinsky Ades. | BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki (pictured in 2009 with the Ensemble Intercontemporain) led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night in a program of Stravinsky and Ades. | BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

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CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA— Susanna Malkki, conductor

With Leila Josefowicz, violin


Repeats at 8 p.m. Sataurday, and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22

Sympony Center, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets $27-$114; students with ID, $10

(312) 294-3000;

NOTE: The Oct. 19 concert is a part of the new POST series — $35 tickets include a 21+over after-concert lounge, drinks, and DJs

Updated: April 14, 2014 4:48PM

While Finland’s Susanna Malkki did not make her Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut until two years ago at 42, she is one of the few newer conductors to be invited back for more in the Riccardo Muti era. Based on her 2011 appearances and her Afterwork Masterworks concert Thursday night return she is clearly one of those rare leaders who can both create a fascinating program on paper and execute it at a high, even stirring, level.

Two years ago it was two Charles Ives works, Richard Strauss’ “Zarathustra” and, of all things, a contemporary bass clarinet concerto by Thea Musgrave, with the CSO’s J. Lawrie Bloom. This week has a similar formula — Stravinsky’s fascinating but too rarely played 1931 Violin Concerto in D, Debussy’s “La mer” and a work, albeit from 1993, by a contemporary composer, the enviable Londoner Thomas Ades, now all of 42 and present in the house at Orchestra Hall and for a post-concert discussion with Malkki for series subscribers.

Finland, a geographically relatively isolated country of just 5.4 million people, produces conductors the way some other nations do tennis stars or marathon champions. Malkki stands out, though, not only as a woman in a field that remains heavily dominated by men but for her versatility and her commitment to and knowledge of 20th and 21st century music. A former music director of the Pierre Boulez-directed Paris Ensemble Intercontemporain, she shares that great figure’s eschewal of a baton, understands the importance of pulse in modern music and adds to these her own extended but clear and never distracting gestures.

The Stravinsky is probably best known to dance mavens as the score for a major George Balanchine ballet of 1972. (Balanchine had also created an earlier work to it, since lost, in 1941.) But it was written as a concert work and in a performance like that of the American-Canadian Leila Josefowicz you can see and hear what a successful work it can be. Stravinsky had avoided most concertos and the virtuosi who played them but he accepted the challenge of this commission when the young violinist Samuel Dushkin was presented as a willing partner. He intentionally put himself up against the great concertos of the past and found one of his more convincing ways of illustrating harmony and development as well as playful rhythm with his “Neoclassical” technique. Josefowicz, as she has shown many times before, hears the music as well as the intellect in modern works and she has the technical and artistic abilities to make a piece sing and cohere. She earned strong ovations from audience and orchestra.

That it has taken 20 years to bring Ades’ “ . . . but all shall be well,” Op. 10, to Orchestra Hall is unfortunate ­­— along with George Benjamin, also from the UK, he is one of the most important and interesting figures in music today. This ten-minute soundscape received a splendid performance under Malkki and also served as an ear-opening guide to the full program: Soft sounds and bells made their way gently up and down a small portion of the scale and then developed into orchestra-wide waves before retreating back into silence. And when it comes to waves, nothing touches Debussy’s three “symphonic sketches” of 1903-05. With principal flute Mathieu Dufour as a partial co-captain, Malkki offered a “La mer” that delivered on technical, architectural, sonic, representational and mystical levels simultaneously. Brilliant and beautiful stuff.

Saturday and Tuesday subscription performances will add an opener of the first suite Sibelius made in from his very late, 1920s, Incidental Music for Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Op. 109, played here only once before and almost 70 years ago. There’s little doubt that the Finnish master’s work will be in the right hands with Malkki.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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