Susanna Mälkki is one of the leading female conductors in Europe and the world. 2018/2019 is her third season as Chief Conductor of Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, with highlights to include Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and a world premiere of a new work by Enno Poppe. It will be her second season as Principal Guest Conductor of Los Angeles Philharmonic, and there Susanna Mälkki will conduct a world premiere of Steve Reich’s Music for Ensemble and Orchestra. A guest conductor at the highest level worldwide, 2018/19 sees Mälkki return to the Wiener Symphoniker and Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien(as a Wiener Konzerthaus “Portrait” artist), Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France,among others.A renowned opera conductor, Mälkki returns to the Opéra national de Paris in 2019 to conduct Dvořák’s Rusalka.
A former student of the Sibelius Academy, Mälkki studied with Jorma Panula and Leif Segerstam. Prior to her conducting studies, she had a successful career as a cellist and from 1995 to 1998 was one of the principals of the Gothenburg Symphony. In June 2010 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in London, and she is also a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. In 2011 Mälkki was awarded the Pro Finlandia Medal of the Order of the Lion of Finland – one of Finland’s highest honours – and in January 2016 was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in France. In October 2016 she was named Musical America’s 2017 Conductor of the Year, and in November 2017 she was awarded the Nordic Council Music Prize.
Russian Art and Culture asked Susanna about her career, her visions of music’s role in the modern world, connections between Finland and Russia, and about her professional connections with Russian composers and performers.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Susanna, can you please describe in brief the system of musical education in Finland and what exact opportunities a child can get? How did you benefit from it and in which way your path has been defined by musical education provided by the state?
Susanna Mälkki: The most important characteristics is the availability of music schools throughout the country and the low tuition fees. There has been some evolution in the recent decades, unfortunately not positive, on this – in my childhood there were more music institutes and the lessons were free. But it’s still available and accessible. I went to school in a suburb of Helsinki and it was a normal school but with a specific music class: along with the normal subjects, we had a music lesson every day; we also got instruments for free and had a small orchestra and choir. As for my path, I would probably have studied music in any case, since my parents had all their three children have music lessons (I am the youngest and in the end the only one who had tuition from the institutions), but for the career choice it is possible that the social aspect of having friends may have played a role, that is difficult to estimate. Finally, the most important elements are individual passion for music and finding a teacher who inspires. I quite soon got into the Junior Academy of the Sibelius Academy, which was the national highest level (now university level) institution with a special department for under-age students.
YS: Can you please describe the atmosphere of Helsinki in classical music? What could an average listener or a family get in terms of classical music repertoire?
SM: Helsinki is a good city for classical music. There is a general appreciation for classical music, there are three full size orchestras (one of them is the opera), good concert halls and a public that loves music. The audience is also open-minded and curious, and there are many series of different kinds of repertory, baroque ensembles and new music series. During the season, there is a remarkable number of concert music events every week.
YS: What do you think could be done to enhance the connection and mutual awareness of classical music events in two countries – Russia and Finland, so that the listeners know about and could visit important classical events in the neighbouring countries?
SM: This is an important question! Possibly some structured exchange would help, like twin cities, ministries of culture collaborating more, or targeted sponsoring perhaps, travel agencies working together in both countries. There are already travel agencies organizing trips to opera performances, and journalists attending and reporting, but it could always be more. I think information is the key, and the internet is an extremely helpful tool these days.
YS: What is the ratio between more well-known classical music and modern composers? Finland is incredibly lucky to have a bunch of internationally known figures – Salonen, Lindberg, Saariaho. Are they performed or prioritized to perform over other modern composers?
SM: The three names you mention are appearing regularly in the concert programmes, but there are many others too, so I don’t see that as something taking place from someone else. It’s rather the opposite: it gives visibility to all composers, and it is good to have international media personalities. And of course it is important that their music is also performed in Finland. Music by living composers is more a normality in Finland than in many other countries in any case.
YS: In which way if at all you have been influenced by Russian music as a conductor? Which particular period or composer in Russian music is your favourite and why?
SM: I have been influenced by Russian music indeed, and I don’t make a difference between playing and conducting. I grew up listening to Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Moussorgsky and other big classics from Romantic era, Rachmaninov, Shostakovitch, Prokofiev etc. I am still very fond of all of them and many others.
YS: Could you name Russian colleagues (conductors, performers, composers) that you have worked with and whose partnership you especially appreciated?
SM: For soloists, I could name Viktoria Mullova, Vadim Repin, Alexei Ogrintchouk and Kirill Gerstein ofthe recent years. They are all extraordinary artists. Speaking about composers – for instance, I had the pleasure of working with Rodion Shchedrin and Dmitri Kourliansky. But I actually meet Russian musicians everywhere. There are numerous amazing solo players in top orchestras in America as well as in Europe! The musical heritage and level of Russia on the international music scene is always very impressive.
YS: Were there interchanges of experiences between Sibelius (or other composers of 19thcentury) and Russian composers? Are there influences of Russian music on Finnish, or of Finnish music on Russian that can be still perceived now?
SM: There are strong influences indeed, a certain melancholy and big melodies in the first two symphonies by Sibelius are a very clear example. But also the proximity made it natural for Finnish artists to study in Russia and follow the very rich music life there.
YS: Who were your mentors, who helped you on your way, what were the main challenges?
SM:My teachers were important of course. Composers have been central in my conducting and in fact many of the key opportunities have come by recommendation by composers. To name a few example, Adès for the UK debut, Saariaho for orchestras as well as opera houses (most importantly the Metropolitan in NYC), Francesconi to La Scala, Boulez for Ensemble intercontemporain. Speaking about challenges, it could be said that there were numerous prejudices towards a woman as conductor in the beginning, and I have met musicians who would act disrespectfully, which I would guess happened for that same reason. The mentality is something very slow to change, but I see an important difference compared to how things were even 20 years ago.
YS: What are the main professional traits and human characteristics that a conductor should have? What have been your main personal challenges and steps in developing as a conductor? How has this career influenced you as a human being?
SM: The most important thing is to understand music, the second to know exactly how one wants to hear it, and the third thing is knowing what to do to ”get it”, which is then the technical and human skills. In that way conducting is exactly as being any musician. Of course the leadership position adds some elements, but we should never forget the first ones, the interpretation being the starting point. Professional traits and human characteristics should be worthy of the art, by which I mean that there are many ways to obtain results but preferably in fair terms.… As for my own personal path, well, everyone evolves on many levels during life, and to write about this is something rather for my memoirs, if I ever decide to write them! Conductors are under a lot of different kinds of pressure, and one has to know oneself very well and keep one’s feet on the ground.
YS: Could you describe your relationship with Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra – how do you form its repertoire, how do you develop mutual understanding with its musicians, what are your main goals when working with them? What are the challenges?
SM: Forming the repertory of an orchestra is something that you work on over several years – or even decades. What is the repertory the orchestra is known and asked for, what is the repertory an orchestra should perform regularly to give the subscription audience a reasonably varied choice over the years, what is the repertory that the orchestra as institution has a responsibility of doing for the sake of the culture of the city or the country, what is the repertory which is useful for the orchestra’s development…. In other words, many different questions regarding this, and all of these I take into consideration when we plan a musical season. ”Developing an understanding” is another way of saying that the orchestra and their conductor communicate easily and breathe music naturally together. Whatever piece is being played, the performance shall be in the idiomatic style of each composer, doing justice to the composers’ intentions, always played as well as possible of course, which in turn consists of a lot of parameters (sound, articulation, intonation, balance etc.). Being the chief conductor or music director, the consistency of quality is very important part of the responsibility. Any concert week is prepared with same kind of elements in the work, but it’s the long-term work that really develops an orchestra into a coherent ensemble, and all of today’s top orchestras of the world have had the kind of music directors in their past who have dedicated a lot of time to them.
YS: Could you please compare it to your work as Principal Guest conductor at Los Angeles Philharmonic? What are the differences between conducting a European and an American orchestra?
SM:The music-making itself is always fundamentally the same, but the influence is different depending on whether one sees the orchestra often or rarely. A principal guest position is somewhere between the two. All orchestras are different but if a generalization can be made, North American top orchestras are remarkably quick since rehearsal time is much more limited there than in Europe.
YS: Could you please describe your experience as an opera conductor? What are the main challenges of conducting an opera by a modern composer (like you did with ‘L’amour de loin’)?
SM: Opera is an art form which fascinates me enormously, and I don’t think that conducting an old or new opera is so different in the end, if one is used to reading and learning music of different times. One has to understand what the composer wants to say, how the music relates to the text and so on. The learning and coaching process is of course different when the music is new to everyone, and guiding the singers and the orchestra in the new sound world is something that takes more time, but it’s also what makes it really fascinating!
YS: What is the role of music in contemporary world (politics, society, environment)? Can music be political, controversial, making a certain stance, bringing a message?
SM:Music has always reflected the society of its time, always. Rameau, Mozart, Beethoven, Shostakovich, John Adams as examples from different periods. Beethoven’s Eroica was not a ”political” work and yet it is, and it’s still relevant. The message through music, at least in classical music, is often less outspoken than the media world is, because composing is very slow work, but perhaps thanks to that it can also be more contemplated and profound, so the ”message” has in best cases a deeper impact. Music can be very powerful but not all composers are interested in looking ahead. People have many different reasons for composing.
YS: How in your view should a modern individual develop his or her understanding of classical and contemporary classical music? What could be possible steps? What does music give to us as human species?
SM: I don’t think anyone needs to develop qualities before enjoying music. It is through listening that many beautiful qualities can develop and evolve in us: concentration and ability to listen for example, both qualities needed in all fields of life and work. There is a lot of brain research and studies which prove that listening to music and especially learning to play an instrument is extremely helpful for all learning. Patience and willingness to listen are fundamental, and I believe it is best to start very young!
Through understanding, as a starting point, that all composers are different, their message is different and all interpretations are different readings, and we don’t need to know everything in order to enjoy or appreciate the music. As a friend said: one doesn’t need to be a professor in biology in order to enjoy a walk in the woods. But I actually think closing the eyes while listening is very good, to let the music just go in and let the imagination fly freely. Children listen with great curiosity, that is the perfect attitude!
What music can give to us? Well, that’s a subject for a book! Experiences of beauty, compassion, excitement, joy, enlightenment.