Few international conductors are more in demand than Susanna Mälkki. In the last few years, the Finnish maestra has made acclaimed debuts with several top-level orchestras, including the New York and London philharmonics, and she has been featured in such prominent publications as London’s Guardian. She was even mentioned as a possible candidate for the New York Philharmonic’s just-filled music director post.
“Accomplished, exuding quiet charisma, respected internationally for expertise in contemporary music and a wide swath of the standard repertory, Ms. Malkki could have been an exciting possibility to succeed Alan Gilbert, who has announced his departure, as music director in 2017,” wrote New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini in a May 2015 review.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra patrons have had the opportunity to experience Mälkki’s podium prowess on three occasions: two sets of subscription concerts in 2011 and 2013 at Orchestra Hall and in 2014 at the Ravinia Festival. (“With powerful, richly eloquent, and immaculately balanced performances, Mälkki’s sensational debut is easily the most impressive CSO podium bow of recent seasons,” wrote Lawrence A. Johnson in the Chicago Classical Review in 2011.)
CSO audiences will get another chance to see her in action March 30-April 2 in a program featuring Gil Shaham as soloist in Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2. (The first date in the run is an Afterworks Masterworks concert.) “Bartók is one of the 20th-century composers I adore,” Mälkki said. “I think this piece is a jewel for many reasons, and I’m excited to do it in Chicago, because the orchestra is, of course, excellent. It’s a virtuosic piece not only for the soloist but also for the orchestra.”
Also on the lineup is Debussy’s Gigues, which was inspired by the French composer’s memories of England, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s evocative, Eastern-tinged Sheherazade. “It is a coherent program,” she said. “It may not look like one, but I think it is, because it has this element of folklore and storytelling. Bartók was very idiomatic in his own language, and we have Debussy and Rimsky, who were kind of representing the exoticism in music earlier.”
Now 46, Mälkki began her musical career as a cellist, serving as a principal in the Gothenburg Symphony from 1995 through 1998, but she always had an interest in conducting since childhood and decided to give it try. She attended Finland’s famed Sibelius Academy, which has produced an extraordinary array of well-known conductors, including Sakari Oramo, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Osmo Vänskä. Of her fellow alumni, she said, “We know each other, and we have very good relationships. I’m very pleased to say that I feel that I have a bunch of wonderful colleagues and we are able to discuss things. It’s very important, because it’s such a strange and unusual profession. There are not very many people who understand what you are doing.”
Her first break came in 1999, when after leading the Finnish premiere of Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face, the famed composer and conductor invited her to be his assistant for further performances of the opera in Great Britain. 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, which was founded in 1976 by Pierre Boulez. She continues to be known as a new-music specialist, and her first program with the CSO included Thea Musgrave’s 1993 concerto for bass clarinet and orchestra, Autumn Sonata.
Asked by the Guardian to name the best piece written in the last half-century (what she calls an “impossible” question), Mälkki chose György Ligeti’s Piano Concerto (1985-88). “I adore the music of Ligeti because he’s such a master in so many ways,” she said. “An extremely skillful contemporary composer but then also someone who was really thinking beyond what has been done before and developing what people are able to do technically. And there is so much joy and humor in his music, and also at the other end, really deep expression. I think it’s timeless.”
In the same Guardian interview, she named the British rock band Led Zeppelin as a guilty pleasure. “We have this image that if you are a serious classical musician, you shouldn’t be listening to any ‘second-rate music’ — anything non-classical, which is, of course, crazy,” she said. “My generation, everybody grew up with all kinds of music, and I would say 99.9 percent of [classical] musicians have grown up listening to all kinds of music, and there is no shame about it, nor should there be.”
As much as Mälkki is known for her work in contemporary music, she has made a point of not getting pigeonholed in that realm, conducting a range of composers from Beethoven to Brahms to Prokofiev.
In recent years, she has found her orchestral debuts to be more thrilling than daunting. “I tend to think that if the orchestra is really, really good, then the possibilities are even greater,” she said. “Rather than being something scary, it’s actually opening up new horizons in terms of what you can do. It’s great to be communicating musically with wonderful musicians.”
The 2016-17 season will be a particularly momentous for Mälkki, starting with her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera as she leads the company’s first performances of Finnish composer Kaija Saariho’s L’Amour de loin (2000), which many critics consider to be among the most successful new operas of the last few decades. “Kaija Saariho is a composer I have known for many years, and I know this piece, because I conducted it in Helsinki,” she said. “It’s a wonderful work. And speaking of debuts, it’s always been a dream that one day I would conducting at the Met, and now it is happening.”
Even more important, Mälkki will take over as music director of the Helsinki Philharmonic. “It’s a big honor to be in charge of such an institution, which has been playing a central role in the musical life in my country,” she said. “It’s also the orchestra that premiered most of Sibelius’ works, so there is this sense of tradition. I’ve known most of the musicians very well for years, so it’s a very special feeling of homecoming. I want to do everything I can so that this orchestra will continue to flourish.”
Even with her new position in Helsinki, Mälkki plans to continue living in Paris. “It’s a great city, and I’ve lived here for almost 10 years,” she said. “It’s very central, and there are lots of very interesting happenings in Paris. I have a very nice working relationship with the Paris Opera. For the time being, Paris will definitely be my home, and Helsinki is three hours away.”
Already talk is swirling that Mälkki would be an ideal candidate for other potential major openings in the orchestra world. “At the moment, of course, my head is very much in Helsinki, because I’m just about to start,” she said. But she acknowledged that the position will not occupy all her time, and she said might be willing to consider another position, depending on the circumstances. “I’m open,” she said. “I think I should I devote myself to the Helsinki orchestra, but then, if things go well, it’s not impossible.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.