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Mälkki Leads Massive Mahler and New Reich at the LA Phil

Thursday was the opening performance of a concert featuring Susanna Mälkki leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the world premiere of Steve Reich’s new work for orchestra, as well as in Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 5. Reich’s Music for Ensemble and Orchestra offered the driving, minimalist soundscape that you might expect from his music. The repeating two-chord pattern in the piano that initiates the piece is revealed occasionally during the ebbs of his thick, sparkling textures, facilitated by Mälkki’s attention to balance and pacing. Reich’s music taps into something so fundamental about why and how we experience musical excitement that any moments of predictability have a friendly familiarity rather than any sense of cliché.

If there was anything to criticize in the performance, it was some slightly opaque moments in the middle; it was difficult to tell whether the performance was dragging or if the piece had written in some details that did not quite translate. It was interesting to see how committed both Mälkki and the musicians were during the Mahler, and while obviously the Mahler calls for much larger forces, I still felt that some of that emotional investment might have benefitted the Reich. In both cases, a few of the, let’s say, weirder moments—particularly during transitions—were allowed to be awkward without an attempt to find some detail or nuance to connect it to the rest of the work. Granted, those passages are in some ways a feature of Mahler, but with a program consisting of only these two works, I would have wished for some defining attention to those moments.

Overall, though, this program balanced ambition with direction in a way only the LA Phil could. It was performed well by the principles and members of the philharmonic, and Mälkki seems to be connecting ever more deeply with the audience here in Los Angeles. If these first few weeks of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 100th season are any indication, this season will be as special as promised.

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