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Review: A Conductor Adds Her Name to Philharmonic Contenders

It’s auditions season at the New York Philharmonic — and not for a seat among its players. With Jaap van Zweden, the orchestra’s music director, having announced in September that he will depart in 2024, every guest conductor now takes the podium with the search for his replacement looming.

This game of Fantasy Baton is complicated by the fact that the Philharmonic is wandering while David Geffen Hall is renovated, playing sometimes unfamiliar repertory in unfamiliar (and perhaps uncongenial) spaces. But the fall brought good reviews for Dalia Stasevska, Simone Young, Giancarlo Guerrero and Dima Slobodeniouk.

No guest so far, though, has received a platform like Susanna Mälkki got on Thursday. Making her fourth appearance with the Philharmonic, she is the only outsider to be granted one of the orchestra’s four dates this year at Carnegie Hall, its home until Lincoln Center was built in the 1960s and where it had not appeared since 2015. (Van Zweden leads the other three Carnegie concerts, this spring.)

The chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Mälkki presided over a program tailor-made for a Finnish conductor’s tryout with an ensemble across the Atlantic: two beefy, brassy American works followed after intermission by one of Finland’s most famous symphonic exports, Sibelius’s Fifth.

Adolphus Hailstork’s 1984 overture “An American Port of Call” depicts Norfolk, Va., as a mixture of bustling activity and sweet nocturnal relaxation. Mälkki brought out piquant touches, like some characterful wails of clarinet, and the tidal undercurrent of the low strings at certain moments even anticipated the grand “swan call” climax of the Sibelius.

She patiently, persuasively built that symphony’s fitful first movement, and the whole work had a feeling of straightforwardness, lightness and modesty; neither tempos nor emotions were milked; the performance was more lovely than intense. Ensemble sonorities in the winds and brasses were clean, if not pristine or particularly atmospheric — though Judith LeClair, the orchestra’s principal bassoon, brought gorgeously buttery foreboding to her important solo.

A former section cellist before embarking on her conducting career, Mälkki was unafraid of encouraging some aggression in the strings: a few forceful accents in the first movement and, most arresting, a slapping spiccato burr in the double basses during the stirring swan motif in the finale. But the chords at the end, in some performances slashing and stark, were here warm, resonant, full, even mellow.

John Adams’s Saxophone Concerto is almost the same half-hour length as the symphony, but felt far longer on Thursday. The distinguished soloist, Branford Marsalis, made a tender sound in some lullaby-like passages, but often Adams’s virtuosically burbling fabric of alto-sax notes seemed to vanish into the dense orchestral textures — sometimes inaudible, sometimes just bland in color and bite. Occasionally rousing for some of this composer’s trademark peppy rhythmic chugging, and a fun section riffing on “The Rite of Spring,” the 2013 work as a whole felt muted and glum, with a tinkling celesta nagging.

This was my first time hearing the piece live, so I can’t be sure whether these balance and energy problems are common. But the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s recording under David Robertson — with Timothy McAllister, for whom the concerto was composed, as soloist — makes a far better, more seductive and varied case for it than Thursday’s performance.

As for the Philharmonic’s future, Gustavo Dudamel — whom the orchestra’s chief executive, Deborah Borda, recruited in her last job to lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic — conducts two weeks of Schumann in March. He and others appearing in the coming months, like Jakub Hrusa, Santtu-Matias Rouvali, Tugan Sokhiev and Long Yu, could all be considered music director contenders.

Mälkki deserves to be on that list, too. But perhaps the best indication of the field will come soon, when the orchestra announces its lineup for next season, its return to the renovated Geffen Hall. Game on.

New York Philharmonic

Performed on Thursday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.

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