If it's rare to hear works by women at San Francisco Symphony - excepting the odd Gubaidulina a few years back and a Higdon since - it's about equally rare to see and hear a woman conducting SFS. This year, we've had rising stars Jane Glover, whom I did not see, and Susanna Mälkki, whom I did.
I hope she is back soon, though she does not appear to be on next season schedule. This year's program got only two nights, rather than the usual three (or sometimes four). She has a conducting style as angular and sharp as a razor; I could hardly keep my eyes off her and I bet the musicians could not either. The whole concert crackled with energy and focus.
She opened with Modulations, from the French spectralist composer Gérard Grisey's 90-minute cycle Les espace acoustiques. As I said to Joshua Kosman later, I'm sure I was the only person in the room who'd heard Les espace acoustique more often (on record) than the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto that followed - since I'd never heard any of the Prokofiev piano concertos before. (Yes, I do have some odd gaps in my musical knowledge.) Modulations is about 15 minutes long, an essay in shifting orchestral textures mostly expressed in extremely short phrases that grow in volume and then fade away: hairpins, as it were. It's not so easy to hear the structure, but it certainly sounds coherent, and often extremely beautiful. I wish they'd played the whole thing...maybe another time, perhaps when MTT starts programming recent mavericks rather than the ones who've been dead for decades. Or maybe he'll just bring back Mälkki, conductor of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, who has more of an affinity for this kind of music than he does.
Next up, Horacio Gutiérrez in a fluent and entirely charming performance of the Prokofiev Third PC. Okay, that was fun - and audience ate it up. Whose recordings of the Prokofiev piano concertos should I buy?
Last, the Sibelius First, which got a taut and high-tension performance, to the point where I wondered how far she could possibly go with it before the orchestra exploded or fell apart. She kept finding new places to go and, remarkably, never ran into problems with the discursive form of the piece, nor did the orchestra ever come to grief. Strength to strength! I hope she'll be back soon.