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Quick, without using Google: How many female conductors do you know? Even diehard classical fans are hard-pressed to name more than a couple—-one of whom is usually Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Over the years, historical gender imbalances for orchestras have sharply declined, even reversed, since the advent of blind auditions made it harder for directors to openly discriminate: orchestra musicians are now as if not more likely to be women than men. But this hasn’t been the case for conducting, which very much remains a boys’ club.
It’s an issue that doesn’t come up (at least here; the British press has noticed) except on the rare occasion one sees a nonmale conductor take the stage. Which is what D.C. audiences will see, albeit briefly, at the Kennedy Center for the next two nights, as Susanna Mälkki guest conducts the National Symphony.
Mälkki did a decent job leading the NSO at last night’s opener. A Finnish conductor and cellist currently residing in France, she is also the rare music director who prefers contemporary music. (Her Paris orchestra, Ensemble InterContemporain, has more salaried musicians than any other contemporary music ensemble in the world.) So her soloist was an odd pick: Garrick Ohlsson, an American pianist who sticks mostly to standard repertory—-or, that is to say, mostly to Chopin.
Kennedy Center crowds are more open than most to new stuff after 12 years of Leonard Slatkin, although their patience is limited largely to American composers. Mälkki, who specializes in European contemporaries, took a slight risk in picking fellow Finn Mangus Lindberg’s Parada as her token contemporary work, but it’s one that sounds surprisingly classical for something written in 2002. It’s a dense, ominous piece that borders a little too close to Scooby Doo, with the brass sustaining a level of hair-raising tension longer than it should.
The program was back in familiar-but-not-really territory with Mahler’s little known and unfinished 10th symphony. Like Beethoven, Schubert,and Dvořák before him, Mahler solved the eternal problem of How do you top your ninth symphony? by dying before completing his 10th. Fans of his “Titan” were probably let down; this was the weird, avant-garde-era Mahler, not the morose, suicide-inducing Mahler we know and love. It was the uncommon piece to feature the violas on multiple solos, which the NSO violists handled nicely despite having few notes with which to work.
Ohlsson performed well if not spectacularly on the final act, Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto. His style of playing is precise and heavy-handed: punctuating. each. note. so that nothing bleeds together, even the trills. The enunciation took some of the passion out of Beethoven; it was better suited for his encore, for which he returned to his preferred repertoire with Chopin’s E flat major waltz.
The Kennedy Center has hit on a nice concert supplement with its “AfterWords” series of post-concert discussions with performers. Without this, we would never know how long-winded a musician can be when not playing. But Mälkki and Ohsson make a good pair, at least when they’re not talking, providing an enjoyable evening for one of the NSO’s less prominently featured shows of the season.
The performance continues through this weekend, Friday, Nov. 19 and Saturday, Nov. 20 starting at 8 pm at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St. NW. $20-$85. (800) 444-1324.