Conductor Susanna Mälkki is making big waves on the world’s music stages

December 11, 2012
By David Fleshler

Susanna Malkki conducts the New World Symphony this weekend in music of Berlioz and Saariaho.

A petite, dark-haired woman walked into the orchestra pit at La Scala, the illustrious Milan opera house that has seen the world premieres of works by Bellini, Verdi and Puccini.

Susanna Mälkki was making La Scala history that day, becoming the first woman ever to conduct the opera company once presided over by Arturo Toscanini. The fact that this particular glass ceiling was shattered in 2011 was treated as something of an embarrassment for La Scala, occurring as it did long after women had led the governments of Pakistan, the United Kingdom, Israel, the Philippines and many other countries.

But for Mälkki, 43, who will conduct the New World Symphony in Miami Beach Dec. 15 and 16, it was another triumph on a path to becoming one of the leading conductors of the 21st century. A specialist in contemporary music, Mälkki is a product of the astonishingly fertile classical music culture of Finland, a nation of 5.4 million that is bidding for the role in classical music played by Germany and Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries. At her New World concerts, she will appear with the Finnish clarinetist Kari Kriikku, who will give the United States premiere of a clarinet concerto by the renowned Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho.

Mälkki is finishing her last season as music director of the Paris-based Ensemble InterContemporain, a chamber orchestra specializing in new music, which she has led since 2006. Although she said she isn’t ready to announce her future plans, she said they will involve a symphony orchestra. She has had acclaimed appearances with some of the world’s leading orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Chicago Symphony and San Francisco Symphony.

Characteristically, the work she conducted at La Scala was not La Traviata or Madama Butterfly, but the world premiere of the opera Quartett by the Italian composer Luca Francesconi. Mälkki doesn’t focus on being a pioneer in the male-dominated field of conducting, considering herself fortunate to be pursuing her career today rather than, say, in 1950. But she was surprised to find herself playing that role at La Scala this far into the 21st century.

“It’s quite incredible that it’s so late in happening at La Scala, so in that sense it’s still worth mentioning,” she said in a telephone interview from Paris. “I think the music world has changed a lot in the last 20 years. And I’m very, very happy that I’m in my career now because I know that four decades ago it would have been impossible, however good I would be. So it’s not without importance, and I think in every field of life it’s discussed. I’m very happy if I can contribute to the development of more women being visible as musicians.”

La Scala, also, was apparently very happy because the company invited her to return in 2014.

Her path to La Scala began in the Helsinki suburb of Vuosaari. Born to parents who appreciated music but did not make it professionally, she studied the cello, applied herself, won a national cello competition and eventually became a principal cellist of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra of Sweden. But she wanted to be more than a member of a cello section, so she entered Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy to study conducting with the renowned Jorga Panula, whose class produced several orchestral leaders who would go on to international careers, including Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Osmo Vänskä.

Her years as a cellist have made her a better conductor, she said, allowing her to understand the problems of the troops on the line and what they need from the conductor to play their best. In spite of their formal attire, years of practice and conservatory degrees, orchestral musicians are occasionally called the blue-collar workers of classical music. And like an auto factory worker who made it to the executive suite, Mälkki understands the difficulties of those actually doing the work of producing tones as they try to follow a conductor, and musicians respond to this.

“It’s been very, very useful,” she said. “Especially because having been among the musicians, I think I have a clearer idea of what the musicians need from the conductor in terms of communicating, I think mainly in gestures, how you use your time when you’re rehearsing. I think it’s really an asset. If you have been trying to follow somebody who’s not able to convey, then you understand how important it is. If you have very, very clear gestures—I mean the beat is one thing but if you can convey your thoughts in gestures, everything is easier for the musicians and you save so much time.”

The contemporary music world in which she lives and works has changed in the last 30 years or so, she said, with a wide variety of styles replacing the few that had dominated the scene for much of the 20th century. “With the young contemporary composers, one thing that is very positive is that they are very open-minded to different kinds of influences,” she said. “I think the whole contemporary music world was suffering from the dogmatism of the 50s, 60s and the early 70s. There were schools, and certain things were accepted and other things were not accepted, and so forth. We don’t have this anymore, which is a good thing.”

The Saariaho Clarinet Concerto, which received its world premiere in 2010 in Helsinki, was inspired by six medieval tapestries called The Lady and the Unicorn, which the composer saw in a Paris museum. The tapestries portray the five senses, plus a mysterious sixth sense, and Saariaho composed the work in six sections to follow the progression of tapestries.

“It’s very, very special, very coloristic,” Mälkki said. “But it’s also dramatic, and that of course is the interplay with the solo clarinet with the orchestra.” Mälkki believes the music of her compatriot Saariaho can be appreciated by audiences that are not necessarily familiar or receptive to avant-garde music. “In spite of the sort of strangeness of the language, the expression is something that they can feel. The elements of music aren’t just analysis or mathematics, there’s so much more to music—atmosphere or sound.”

The concerto was composed for the Finnish virtuoso Kari Kriikku, who will be the soloist this weekend in Miami Beach. He worked with Saariaho as she wrote the work, demonstrating passages and showing whether particularly demanding sections were playable at all, he said in an interview from São Paulo, where he was preparing for a concert. The composer emailed him the first few passages and he performed them for her over the phone. They met twice in Helsinki. And she made one odd request: “Could you make this phrase sound more like an animal, an animal sound, not like a normal clarinet sound?” He learned later that she presumably meant the unicorn of the tapestries.

Although a highly accomplished musician, prepared to handle the most difficult passages composers could devise, Kriikku was not prepared for one unusual requirement of the performance: The score requires him to walk to various points around the concert hall as he plays. At various sections of the work, he must be behind the orchestra offstage, in front of the orchestra and among the audience. “At the premiere in Helsinki, I actually didn’t have any idea with the moving thing, with the walking. I just walked, played, walked.”

He found some high-profile help in the renowned opera director Peter Sellars, who had directed two of Saariaho’s operas, who worked with him for four days and forced him to think of the performance as an act of theater (“Don’t be like a normal clarinetist! What is your character?”).

Having worked with Mälkki since she was an orchestral cellist, Kriikku said he has seen her develop into a self-confident, highly effective conductor. “I think Susannah has found her own strong way to be in front of the orchestra,” he said. “What I have seen with young female conductors is often that it’s not easy to immediately to find their own way with an orchestra.”

Unlike conductors who pursue their careers performing Schumann, Brahms, Prokofiev and other major names, with an occasional contemporary work thrown in, Mälkki’s decision to specialize in these works makes her job much tougher. She is constantly having to learn new compositions. “Every week she carries big buckets of new scores she is studying for the Ensemble InterContemporain,” he said. “That’s her life. But she is really enjoying that.”

In preparing works for performance, she is focused, hardworking and serious. “Her way to work involved a lot of rehearsals, and she gets as much as possible from them,” he said. “She works for every minute. And this kind of working is what you need for modern music because it’s new for everybody. They are always, endlessly full of details which you can always work more and more.”

For her New World appearance, Mälkki has also programmed Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. “I’m a great, great admirer of Hector Berlioz,” she said. “He’s really one of the geniuses of history and of course this is probably the most well-known piece. I think it’s revolutionary, and it’s still modern.

“It’s a great piece also for the orchestra. I know that the orchestra is very, very good. It’s really sort of fireworks in orchestral music. I wanted to do something spectacular.”

Susanna Mälkki conducts the New World Symphony 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at New World Center in Miami Beach .; 800-597-3331.

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