For me, it’s not about being radical – interview with Susanna Mälkki

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Finnish Conductor Susanna Mälkki © Jiyang Chen

It has been a year of unprecedented challenges for classical music, let alone our societies as a whole. When live music came to a halt in most parts of the Western world in mid-March, musicians, be they instrumentalists, singers or conductors, all ended up in lockdown with the rest of us.

For Susanna Mälkki, the Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the lengthy months of lockdown were spent at her Parisian home. 

”Although I’ve taken some longer travel breaks before, this was different, due to the uncertainty; not knowing if I would be working again in six months or in two years. Without the concert-oriented preparation work, which is an essential part of my job, these first three months have seemed long indeed”, Mälkki reflects her springtime experiences over our phone conversation. 

Since June, the continental Europe has entered a phase of careful reopening. With curfews gradually lifted and travel bans eased, somewhat, the first small steps in resuming live performance have been taken in some countries, including Germany and Finland. 

This summer, Mälkki was to conduct the long-anticipated world premiere of Kaija Saariahos new opera, Innocence (2018) at Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. While the premiere was postponed until 2021, alongside the whole (live) festival, preliminary rehearsals were still carried out with just the cast and stage crew, thus providing Mälkki the first post-lockdown conducting engagement. 

The premiere will be played by the London Symphony Orchestra. Incidentally, Mälkki’s last concert before lockdown was with the LSO at their Barbican home. This penultimate pre-lockdown live appearance of the LSO featured the Dvořák Violin Concerto (1879-82) with Gil Shaham, alongside Kaija Saariahos Laterna Magica (2008) and Claude Debussys La mer (1903-05).

”The idea behind this program was, in part, to provide the orchestra with a taster of Kaija’s music, which they would be playing at the Festival d’Aix, in the guise of the new opera. As a whole, it was a very fruitful session. Being a wonderful orchestra, the LSO grasped the idea of the music really, really quick, resulting in a truly exquisite performance of Laterna Magica.

It was so lovely that we got to do this concert, as now all the elements are well aligned for the performances of the opera. Or course we all knew that the LSO would be fabulous, but it was great to have the feeling that they are happily embracing this project. 

The LSO is such a dynamic orchestra. They put a lot on the table. And their way to tackle everything is so profoundly musical. Hopefully next summer we finally get to perform the opera together.”

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Susanna Mälkki and Kaija Saariaho at the rehearsals of Innocence, Saariaho’s new opera at Aix-en-Provence, June 2020. © Jean-Louis Fernandez / Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

The rehearsals for the Barbican concert were carried out in the midst of uncertainty, as the concert halls throughout Europe began closing their doors, due COVID-19 restrictions applied by the governments. 

”It was all very strange. Our concert was on the 12th of March, just a day before a many European countries assumed lockdown procedures. On the very morning we were still uncertain if we were going to play in concert in the evening.”

Eventually, the Thursday evening concert did happen, as did the next LSO event on the following Sunday. Since then, all of the LSO’s planned concerts have been cancelled or postponed until 14 December. Alongside the whole UK performing arts scene, EVEN the LSO is facing crucial challenges under the pandemic.

In the UK, orchestral musicians are mostly paid per service, and the performance institutions are private companies, more heavily dependent on ticket sales than most of their Continental European counterparts.  

”I have known all this before, sort of, but the challenges they are facing have now become abundantly clear. I can only hope they too will find quick solutions to overcome this difficult time” 

Following her concert with the LSO, Mälkki returned to her Parisian home for the lockdown months. 

”While this all was baffling, one adapts. And being there healthy and safe, just waiting and reflecting on things, was sort of luxury, after all.  But given that our future of performing has been so vague since the pandemic broke out, we have been forced to make plan B, C, D, E and F. With all this straddling back and forth, it wasn’t exactly a vacation.”

These multiple plans and back-up plans have included engagements around the world.  For Mälkki, this fall marks her fifth season as the Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic. 

During the past seasons, Mälkki and the orchestra have ventured through a richly varied repertoire, form classic to contemporary, reaching zenith with Arnold Schoenbergs monumental Gurrelieder (1900-11) at the Helsinki Festival last year. This fall, in contrast, will be launched with somewhat different programming. 

To be announced in August, the Helsinki Philharmonic will appear onstage at their Helsinki Music Centre home on a two-week basis, performing a greater number of short concerts for a reduced live audience of circa 400, alongside live web streams. Within the current COVID-19 security measures, the orchestra administration and the Helsinki Music Centre staff have concluded that the stage will hold an ensemble of fifty. 

”With this in mind, we have decided to go forth with an ensemble of about forty musicians, in order to avoid any unnecessary risks. We will be able to do a lot with an ensemble of this size. It will be quite fun, actually. Thinking positively, we will be able to do things that we might not do in normal circumstances. And in addition, our musicians will also be active all around Helsinki, playing chamber music in the city libraries.”

Orchestral repertoire will still form the core of the programming for the autumn season. If the current positive development in dealing with COVID-19 holds in Finland, the Helsinki Philharmonic will be playing modified programmes throughout September and October.

”We hope we will be able to resume our original programme, which we almost announced in March, from November onwards. We should keep in mind that back in the days of Robert Kajanus, there were only thirty six musicians in the orchestra. Obviously, a Mahler-sized orchestra with massive forces will be impossible now, during these first two months.

Given the importance of proximity for orchestral playing, getting used to playing with the safety distances applied may be challenging at first. But I’m sure it will work out.”

Alongside original repertoire for smaller orchestral forces, publishers have been making more and more chamber(orchestra) reductions available, in order to make works for large orchestra meet the current performing restrictions. 

”There are marvellous reductions of big works for smaller ensemble, which is really nice – in fact many of these existed already a hundred years ago. With reductions, I find it dazzling how the composer’s original language still comes through, even though the the ensemble size is on twenty per cent of the original. So it’s not compromising, but a fascinating new point of view.”

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Principal Conductor Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra onstage at the Helsinki Music Centre. © Stefan Bremer

If all goes well with COVID-19, Mälkki is to tackle a huge sonic beast next January, as she takes the podium for Richard Wagners Die Walküre (1854-56) at the Finnish National Opera’s. As a part of FNO’s new Ring production, augured last August with Das Rheingold (1853-54), conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. 

Originally, the production of Die Walküre was to be premiered in May, with Salonen at the helm, but twice rescheduled, the Wagner drama eventually found its place outside Salonen’s calendar, in the wintry slot left empty by the now-postponed Finnish premiere of Innocence. 

”What can I say! Die Walküre landed on my lap, let’s put it this way. I am of course very saddened about the Saariaho opera, but the Wagner operas are the kind of repertoire I’ve been dreaming about for years. 

In fact, there was another production of Die Walküre in my calendar already before this one, but it was eventually cancelled. So, getting another chance to do it is of course absolutely marvellous. I am thankful for Esa-Pekka for being so generous in passing this project to me. I am so proud to be a part of this great Finnish endeavor. So in spite of these sad coincidences, a happy outcome.”

Before Helsinki, Mälkki was the Music Director of the Paris-based Ensemble InterContemporain from 2006 until 2013. Founded by Pierre Boulez in 1976, EiC focuses on contemporary music alongside the classics of the 20th century modernism. With the transition from Paris to Helsinki, many things have changed.    

”I guess, one could almost say that there are more differences than similarities between these two assignments. The size of the ensemble is different, the cultural environment is different, the repertoire and programming are different and the audiences are very different. The cities themselves are also quite different, all things considered.

However, on a musical level, at the very core, there are the same guiding principles; aiming for the highest quality and respecting the intentions of the composer. In addition, I’ve been building bridges between these two musical cultures with programming here in Helsinki.”  

Mälkki’s opening season with the Helsinki Philharmonic featured many key works of the French modernism, including Olivier Messiaens Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946-48), Tristan Murails Contes cruels (2007), alongside the orchestral works of Maurice Ravel. 

Be it premiering new works or performing well-established classics, the basic skill-set of a conductor remains essentially the same. 

”In the end, everything comes to knowing the piece and its demands. From there, one shall try to create the circumstances for the best possible outcome. Sometimes pieces can be so complex that no matter how skilled the conductor is, there just isn’t enough rehearsal time to deal with every challenge and every detail. And that is also part of the craft; programming has to be realistic, otherwise it fails to defend the music. But orchestras raise tp challenges too and develop new qualities quickly with new repertory.

In comparison, if we play Sibelius in Helsinki, I can count on the fact that we are already more than halfway there as we begin, and this permits us to dive deeper.

Being able to navigate within the circumstances as they are is important; this means taking into account the qualities of individual musicians, the profile of the orchestra and its tradition of playing. The more one can take advantage of that which is already there, the better. 

A healthy balance between making the end result one’s own without breaking everything into pieces is important.” 

While some of the key skills for a conductor are purely musical, others are more universal, human skills. 

”All musical communication is human also, but the better social skills one has, the easier all communication becomes. The clarity of communication, both verbal and gestural, is essential. And preferably without one contradicting the other. Clarity in gestures saves a lot of words.

Knowing how to use the rehearsal time with the orchestra as well as possible is also essential. It is basically about being efficient and still letting things to breathe. We must not waste each other’s time. The conductor must not waste the orchestra’s time and vice versa.” 

In addition to communicating with the musicians, the interaction between the chief conductor and the administration is also important.

”It is most benefitting for both the conductor and the organization, if the music director has an understanding of the administrative side of the institution. The conductor needs not to do everything, of course, but it is important to be able to see what kind of ”machine” there is behind you. With this understanding, one knows better not to be unreasonable on the one hand and to communicate one’s wishes and needs as clearly as possible on the other.”

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Susanna Mälkki portrait by © Simon Fowler

Each and every performance begin with a thorough study of the musical score. This is a multi-layered process, unseen to the average concert-goer. Describing her method, Mälkki says (half joking, after so many years of world premieres), that her work begins with checking that all the pages are there in their right places, before moving on to true study. 

”It is a sort of taming, in fact. There must be enough time to do it, because there are so many layers. On first glimpse, one can only grasp an overall view, but that too is important. The score must be then read again and again, [and] each time with different eyes. And each time the process becomes more sophisticated and more specific. The zooming in and zooming out is constant. 

In the beginning, there is just the big picture. After that, it is about the architecture and character. The harmonies must be analyzed, in order to achieve an understanding of the composers language. And then one can move on into the details, in search for the logic of articulation. At this point, incongruences may arise, and those must be checked with the composer.

The tempi must be studied carefully, in order to evaluate if a certain passage or transition would work better with a slightly faster or a slightly slower tempo, for example. These things are well worth thinking ahead, so that in the rehearsal one can be quick in drawing conclusions, sometimes before anybody else even notices anything. 

The individual parts must be checked too, in order to see if everything is really thought through. A young composer’s writing may exceed the range of an instrument at some point or there might be passages where it all gets too busy, and the conductor needs to act as a diplomate… 

Balance issues are crucial, and composers have very different ways for writing for an orchestra. A conductor needs to be a real-time sound engineer too. With experience, one begins to spot potential problems quickly in the score, in order to realize where adjustments will be needed. Those are carried out with nuances and dynamics.

It is not the orchestra’s fault if the nuances are written down superficially or not at all, and therefore the balance does not work. But let’s not forget that even the most well-known repertory works are about constantly fine-tuning the expression with careful nuancing and pacing. It’s fascinating, and at best, magical.”

With the standard repertoire, the problems are somewhat different. Can a piece of music still remain fresh and communicate after repeated performances of does the autopilot eventually take over?

”Autopilot can be one way to put it, although I don’t think it does full justice to the phenomenon itself. But it is true that some interpretations may go so deep down into the orchestra’s DNA that it will eventually become challenging to change them. This is something that an orchestra does not necessarily do intentionally, on purpose. It just takes time to get used to doing things the other way round, to rethink habits. And some orchestras are faster to adapt than others.

A beautiful paradox is that doing Sibelius with the Helsinki Philharmonic is tremendously fascinating precisely because they are so thoroughly immersed in the score that they are quick to grasp the new ideas, simply because the pieces are so very familiar. They are not opposed to new ways of thinking, but rather fascinated about how the music is endlessly giving more possibilities.

I would say that that with Sibelius, the task with the Finnish orchestras is to keep things fresh. In the end, it is not so much about the routine per se, but rather the danger of assuming that certain things are expressed even though the commitment level is not at its highest.

At this point, the score must be reconstructed by cleaning the dust off. Interestingly, things become more fresh with this, even though nothing is actually changed.  

For me, it’s not about being radical. I just might have a very strong instinct of doing things in a certain way. And I am trying to remain truthful with that, even though I am aware that sometimes the tradition goes the other way.” 

Alongside Helsinki, as the Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Mälkki has close musical ties to the US West Coast too. As more and more leading classical music organizations, including the LA Phil, have now been forced to cancel their autumn season, Mälkki shares the deep concern for the future of the US concert life, expressed by Esa-Pekka Salonen, among others.   

”I do believe that, thanks to its public funding, classical music in Europe, while taking the blow, will eventually come out of this. I am more concerned about the survival of the orchestras and opera houses in the US. We’ll have to see how long it will take for them to recover. I can see why our American colleagues are less optimistic than us Europeans about the pandemic. But the North American scene is very dynamic and inventive.

Susanna Mälkki
Principal Guest Conductor Susanna Mälkki conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. © Farah Sosa

Despite all the uncertainty, when we turn to putting forward various ideas for future concerts, Mälkki becomes easily inspired. 

”The weekly schedule could do with a shake-up. It would be fun to envision something outside the traditional 90-120-minute scheme. We might occasionally have a whole afternoon of various events, perhaps, or we could take this to the other direction; keeping things brief might be very effective too. 

A lot can be done simply with programming, by putting different things together. I think our season opening last fall was quite successful, I was very happy with it. We were able to include so much variety while maintaining continuity.”

Back in September 2019, Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic augured the new season with a programme featuring a Gesualdo madrigal, Igor Stravinskys Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa ad CD annum (1959-60), Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony (1918-23) and Luciano Berios Sinfonia (1968-69). 

An evening to remember for the sold-out Music Centre audience, met with enthusiasm by critics and concert-goers alike, the concert took place in the heels of the dazzling performance of Gurrelieder, with the Helsinki Philharmonic sharing the stage with the Lahti Symphony, three choirs and six vocal soloists.     

”These super-projects are intriguing, of course. Speaking of large-scale projects, yes it would be fun to do the Mahler Eighth too, some day. And while I’m forever defending the hard-core modernism, the so-called ”greatest hits” are awesome too. For example, I have a soft spot for Dvořáks Slavonic Dances. I just love these pieces and one day I will certainly do a lot of them within one programme. These pieces are ”hits”, of course, but they have become that because they are also such great music. What matters is respecting the music’s innocence and enabling contrasting experiences.

During my Helsinki years, I’ve also programmed composers such as Elgar: well-known names, by whom most of their works are still mostly unknown over here. This kind of intention of proposing discoveries will continue, once we get into the large orchestra mode again. Still, there are good reasons why Beethoven and Brahms are so often played. Their music is simply essential.  

If we had unlimited budget, well, the first thought was to invite all the amazing star soloists like Mitsuko Uchida, Yo-Yo Ma or Bryn Terfel lining up from one week to another. Hopefully, one day, but what I’d actually really want to do would be to have all concerts free for the public all year around, without ever compromising the compensation of the performers. Music is like oxygen, it really belongs to everyone.”

© Jari Kallio

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