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.”
The conductor first brought her talents to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2011, and she follows up a June engagement at Orchestra Hall with back-to-back programs at the Ravinia Festival on July 20-21. It was her idea to pair works by two composers, who at first blush might not seem to have that much in common: Jean Sibelius and Ludwig van Beethoven. “There was an interest in Sibelius from the festival side, because that’s, of course, music that I’m very closely related to, if I can say so,” she said. “And there was also this idea of doing two concerts at Ravinia, and I felt it would be nice if those concerts would have some sort of relation — that we would just not do two different programs.”
The July 20 program will feature Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with soloist Vadim Repin and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica). The subsequent concert reverses the order, opening with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with soloist Kirill Gerstein and continuing with Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. Each of these composers in his own way expanded and reimagined the use of the orchestra. “Maybe the Second Symphony of Sibelius is not the best example of this kind of breakthrough thinking,” Mälkki said. “He was more radical later. But I still consider Sibelius as one of the most important symphonic composers of the early 20th century. And Beethoven, of course, we don’t need to discuss. I guess everyone agrees that he was a revolutionary in many ways. But it’s also easy to think of Beethoven as some kind of statue on the shelf, that he just belongs there. But Beethoven was a very radical modernizer of music, and I think they [the two composers] function well together.”
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 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 the 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.
TOP: Susanna Mälkki returns to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in two concerts July 20-21 at Ravinia. | Photo: Stefan Bremer