The 2016-17 season has been monumental for Susanna Mälkki, whose career continues its meteoric rise. The Finnish conductor launched her tenure as chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, and she became just the fourth woman to helm a Metropolitan Opera production, leading the company’s first presentation of L’Amour de loin (2000), by fellow Finn, Kaija Saariaho.
Mälkki received the kind of rapturous reviews that any performer dreams about. “This production is lucky to have the impressive Ms. Mälkki conducting,” wrote music critic Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times. “All the modernist sonorities and layered strands in this dense, complex music come through. She is excellent at animating the buzzing, frenetic riffs and fleeting ostinatos that ripple through the score. … The Met must have her back as often as possible.”
Mälkki made her podium debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2011; following up an appearance last season, she returns June 15-17 in a particularly diverse program of works by classics Bizet, Fauré and Debussy, and contemporaries John Williams and Melinda Wagner. “Programming is always a big tennis game of different colors of balls,” she said. “There are many parameters and you want to make something which is interesting for the audience and makes sense somehow.”
A highlight is the world premiere of Melinda Wagner’s Proceed, Moon, the third of three pieces that the CSO has commissioned from the composer. Proceed, Moon plays to the conductor’s strong affinity for and considerable experience with contemporary music. After serving as music director of the Stavanger (Norway) Symphony Orchestra in 2002-05, she gained widespread attention during her 2006-2013 tenure as music director of the Paris-based Ensemble InterContemporain, founded in 1976 by Pierre Boulez.
Wagner won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion. Critic Tim Page, who served on the jury that recommended the piece for the honor, praised it in a Washington Post review after she received the Pulitzer: “There is a rich, seductive lushness in the sheer sound of Wagner’s concerto, in which one can luxuriate as if in a warm bath. At the same time, the work is charged with a coiled tension that keeps a listener’s mind alert; we are always interested in what is coming next. The score — in three movements marked ‘Playful,’ ‘Sad, simple, warm’ and ‘Fast’ — features some remarkably eloquent passages for solo flute and ends, literally, with a bang.”
The CSO program also features saxophonist Branford Marsalis, part of the famed New Orleans jazz family that includes his brother, trumpeter Wynton, and his father, pianist Ellis. Along with his acclaimed work in the jazz realm, Marsalis also is a regular collaborator with classical music ensembles as well. He will serve as soloist in Fauré’s Pavane for Soprano Saxophone and Escapades for Alto Saxophone from John Williams’ score for the film “Catch Me If You Can” (2002). “I know he is an amazing artist,” Mälkki said of Marsalis, “and I’ve never worked with him before, and I’m very excited to meet him.”
The concert is bracketed by what Mälkki called a “French frame” of Bizet’s Symphony in C and Debussy’s Ibéria. “I’m a big fan of Bizet,” she said. “Of course, he is extremely well known for Carmen, which is a total masterpiece. I wouldn’t say that he is underrated, but I definitely feel his genius. This piece, although it is quite entertaining, it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s very virtuosic and it has a lot of charm. And I think it’s wonderful, and I can’t wait to do it with this orchestra.”
Looking back to her December debut with the Metropolitan Opera, Mälkki said she is pleased with just about every aspect of her time working on L’Amour de loin. She described the orchestra as “extraordinary,” complimented the production’s top-flight soloists and had nothing but praise for Robert Lepage’s “very beautiful” staging, which she believes completely captured the mysticism of the music and the story.
“I’m very happy that it was very well received but also the fact that the audience clearly became [taken] by it,” she said. “I think it moved a lot of people, and people came for the second or third time. Our last performance started 20 minutes late, because people [were waiting in line] to buy tickets. So clearly, the word was out: Go and see it. And this is wonderful when this happens with a new piece. I mean, it’s not new, but you know what I mean. It’s not Aida. It’s something which might be a risk to program, and it turned out to be a very big success.”
The conductor is convinced that L’Amour de loin will still be performed decades from now. “There’s no doubt of it,” she said. “It’s definitely one of those. It was premiered in 2000, so it’s already almost 20 years old, and there have been lots of new productions of it already. It’s a piece that moves people, and that’s what people from an opera. It’s an art form that’s very much related to human experiences of every form. It’s not only about love and death, but those are frequently present.”
In addition to everything else that Mälkki already has on her plate, the Los Angeles Philharmonic last year announced her three-year appointment as its principal guest conductor beginning with the 2017-18 season. In this new role, she will lead three weeks of subscription concerts each season and participate in outreach initiatives and special projects, including possible commissions. In the past, the position has been held by just two conductors, both of whom have gone on to considerable fame: Simon Rattle (1981-1994) and Michael Tilson Thomas (1981-1985). Mälkki first conducted the Philharmonic in 2010, and she has returned several times since.
“It’s been a place where I’ve loved to go to, because it is such a special institution in every way,” she said. “They are very open to doing exciting projects. There was already this feeling of mutual understanding. I think it was a relatively natural next step. Of course, I was surprised, because they’ve haven’t had this position [for more than 20 years].”
Under the leadership of past music director Esa-Pekka Salonen and current music director Gustavo Dudamel, the L.A. Phil has gained an international reputation for adventurous programming, particularly in area of contemporary music. “What is even more important is that they keep it as a normality in their programming,” she said. “They have also been able to establish a trust from the audience. The audience considers this as something normal as well, and they keep the curiosity alive. It’s really something that orchestras generally could ask themselves: ‘What are the orchestras of the future like?’ Obviously, the music of our time is one of the good ideas to include.”
With all the success that has flowed her way, Mälkki is at a happy place in her career. “Of course, I feel very pleased and grateful for the amazing opportunities,” she said. “But I have become a conductor because of the music, not to make a career. So the fact that I can work with this incredible musical material which we have, with musicians such as the players of the Chicago Symphony, for example, it’s always a very special treat. I’m very pleased about that.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.