Unsilent woods: BSO plays Unsuk Chin, Haydn, Dvorak, and Sibelius
The impressive young Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki is back on the BSO podium this week, having brought a distinctive program with an itinerary all its own. At its heart is the arresting new Cello Concerto by the Korean composer Unsuk Chin, in its American premiere. Haydn’s seldom-played Symphony No. 59 serves as a crisp prelude to the labyrinthine new work and Dvorak’s brief “Silent Woods’’ for cello and orchestra forms a poetic bridge on the other side, leading into the wilderness of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony.
Commissioned for the BBC Proms and premiered in 2009, Chin’s concerto was written for the cellist Alban Gerhardt, who was also last night’s soloist in Symphony Hall. Cast in four movements lasting a total of some 30 minutes, it is a fiercely inventive work in which Chin manages that rare balancing act of honoring the genre’s history while creating something bracingly new. This is music of primal expressive force yet also pinpoint timbral precision.
The first movement opens in stillness with just the solo cello and two harps but quickly evolves in unexpected directions, despite being structured around a single pitch. The second movement flies by, pure speed and insectlike skittering. The third movement presents a sustained, impassioned solo line floating above an iridescent orchestra. And the work’s closing movement is a kind of anti-finale in which orchestra and soloist tug in opposite directions, ending with the solo line climbing higher and higher until it dissolves into silence.
Chin’s cello writing is hugely virtuosic while avoiding cliche, and her orchestral writing is even more inventive, with a harmonic palette widened through microtonal inflections, and an overall sound world subtly shaded through extended techniques. Gerhardt’s playing was superb, as the cellist seemed to inhabit this music with all its punishing technical demands. And the orchestra was in excellent hands with Malkki, herself a cellist and currently the director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the famed new-music chamber orchestra founded by Pierre Boulez.
After intermission, the serenely lyrical “Silent Woods’’ proved an apt transition between Chin and Sibelius, and Gerhardt dispatched it with a smooth and generous tone. Malkki’s Sibelius had less brooding mystery and Romantic grandeur than some accounts you will hear, but I appreciated the clarity and incisive energy she brought to this iconic score.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.