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At BSO, an American premiere bookended by French classics

The Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki led works by Debussy, Fauré, and Messiaen — as well as the American premiere of a piano concerto by Dieter Ammann.

Susanna Mälkki leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra.Winslow Townson

The impressive Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki made an overdue return to the Boston Symphony Orchestra podium on Thursday night, with a program devoted to French works and the American premiere of an ambitious new piano concerto.

Currently Mälkki serves as chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and guests conducts widely. As the field’s various glass ceilings all-too-slowly shift, she seems destined for a major post at a forward-thinking orchestra outside of her native Finland. Curiously, it had been over eight years since her last visit to the BSO. This is too long an absence for a conductor of such fresh, unmannered, and articulate music-making.


Those qualities came through clearly in the French classics with which she bookended Thursday’s program: Fauré’s “Pavane” and Debussy’s “La Mer.” Opening the night, Fauré’s famous melody, as presented first in an eloquent flute solo by Elizabeth Rowe, spoke with limpid elegance. Throughout the work Mälkki drew colors from the orchestra and shaped dynamics in a way that was true to this music’s wistful beauty, its inner allegiance to the cadences of memory and of dusk.

Next to the Fauré, “La Mer” is perhaps equally well-loved yet also far more ubiquitous on orchestral programs. Even so, Mälkki’s reading had nothing canned or routine about it. Other accounts place a higher emphasis on atmosphere and kind of sonic sumptuousness as ends in themselves. Mälkki’s reading, full of keenly ordered details, emphasized the music’s elemental vitality and drive. It somehow comes as little surprise to learn that this conductor has referred to the music of Sibelius as her own mother tongue; her Debussy bore the imprint of an interpreter accustomed to shaping wide horizons of sound.

But the night’s most newsworthy item was “The Piano Concerto (‘Gran Toccata’)” by Swiss composer Dieter Ammann, a co-commission of the BSO in partnership with several other ensembles. Originating in response to a request from pianist Andreas Haefliger, Thursday’s fearless soloist, the piece comes by the “gran” in its subtitle honestly: some 30 minutes in length, this is a bear of a work, stuffed to overflowing with an extreme density of virtuosity in both the orchestral and piano writing. Tempos run fast, spirits run high. The music’s unique voice comes from its particular wedding of brawn and brain, a visceral immediacy of expression, and a cerebral precision of imagination. Influences from the worlds of free jazz and the spectralist avant-garde are likewise boldly twined, as if Ammann were determined to show the same piece of music can simultaneously address the sound world of Georg Friedrich Haas and the ghost of Cecil Taylor.


For his part, Haefliger inhabited the solo part, charging through the often percussive writing with formidable technique and unflagging rhythmic energy. His playing seemed genuinely galvanized rather than depleted by the score’s relentless soloistic demands. That said, Ammann’s writing here for the orchestra is hardly a walk in the park, yet Mälkki rendered the dense and thorny textures with as much transparency as seemed reasonable to expect with just a few rehearsals. Happily, the audience responded to this challenging contemporary score with seemingly genuine enthusiasm — so much so that I found myself idly wondering whether, one day, a piece like this could even be placed on the second half of the program, with all the risks of audience flight that entails. This in itself would be a milestone.


Rounding out this week’s offerings was a movement titled “Alleluia on the Trumpet, Alleluia on the Cymbal” from Olivier Messiaen’s early work “L’Ascension,” which premiered in 1935. It proved an artful way of unifying the program. In subsequent decades, Messiaen’s stained-glass harmonies and his sui generis brand of sonic mysticism would become far more audacious, but here already, even as the music remains indebted to Debussy, it peers out restlessly into the future.


Susanna Mälkki, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, Thursday night. Repeats Friday and Saturday.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.