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An interview with a conductor - Susanna Mälkki

by Antti J. Peltonen

Conductor Susanna Mälkki is becoming bigger and bigger in Paris. And she is still only 41-years of age. Barely a grown-up in the masculine and patriarchic world of conducting.

There she is. Sitting on a bar stool-type of chair in the middle of the stage in front of the orchestra, her orchestra, in Paris, France in September 2010. Susanna Mälkki, a 41-year-old Finn and one of the most talented young conductors in the world, is dressed casually: blue jeans, brown shoes, a black belt and a grey shirt combined with a long-sleeved jumper.

It is a Tuesday. A rehearsal day for the prestigious Eic, The Ensemble InterContemporain chamber orchestra Mälkki has led as Music Director since 2006. The venue is Cité de la Musique; a classy 1000-seat concert hall located in the former slaughterhouse district of La Villette in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, some 25 minutes on the metro from downtown.

The piece being practiced is Laborintus II by the late great Italian Luciano Berio. It is an interesting work of experimental art. Written in 1965 it still sounds modern in the way it combines instrumental solos to choir sections and some of the most visionary solo singing one can imagine.

It is almost like watching a play. The rehearsal of Laborintus II lasts for three hours. During that time Mälkki mostly sits on a chair with her back straight. She conducts and listens, listens and conducts. Every now and then she stops the music and speaks. Although she has only lived in Paris for four years soon, her French sounds nearly perfect. Her voice is soft but firm. Her directions and gestures polite but determined. She does not rage like conductors (the men especially) often do and hardly raises her voice. Yet her voice is just loud enough for everyone on stage to hear her well.

The atmosphere in the concert hall is creative and supportive.

It is clear that Mälkki and her 31 highly skillful full-time musicians (25 of them males) share a mutual respect to each other. In the conducting business, as in any other profession, that is vital.

So is food. Time for lunch.

Not about gender

An hour later Mälkki sits in her second floor office at the Cité de la Musique. The room is big, still mainly empty of material. There are no pictures of family members on her desk (Mälkki is unmarried with no children) or colourful posters on the wall. Just a large table made of wood, a couple of chairs, some A4-sized papers piled by the window, a comfy-looking armchair, a bookshelf filled with notes, an old-school stereo system and a small black piano. The Music Director seems relaxed and looks happy.

And she is. The rehearsal of Laborintus II went well. Especially when one considers that the visiting choir members only met the orchestra yesterday. Not a problem.

“We are constantly put in a situation where we must learn new material fast. Sometimes it feels like composers compete who can write the most difficult notes. But that is fine. We are up for the challenge. Our mindset and the phase of doing things is probably faster than in traditional orchestras,” Mälkki says.

Then she smiles. That is what Susanna Mälkki does a lot during our two-day interview. She smiles.

In 2010 Eic is regarded as one of the top contemporary classical music ensembles anywhere, right up there in the Rolls-Royce category (as Mälkki puts it), something similar to the Berlin Philharmonics. Still, Eic is also very different compared to any classical orchestra. To start with Eic literally has 31 solo musicians, who all master their instruments close to perfection.

Today’s Eic is also a fascinating mix of experience and youth. Some of the older musicians have been around since 1976, when the orchestra was founded by the great French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (b.1925), who still stays in touch with the orchestra. The younger members of the current Eic are only in their early twenties. Most of them are French. And every single one has a big professional ego, different from a Finnish professional ego. For Mälkki, as Music Director and the main conductor (Eic regularly welcomes visitors too), that could translate as a challenge. Especially if one happens to be a woman.  Mälkki says it is a good challenge.

“Bigger symphony orchestras too are full of personalities, but some sort of hierarchy is still recognised and accepted. In Eic all the musicians carry similar top status. In theory, equality is a good thing but in practice it can create problems. In the end it is all about music. Personal opinions must be put aside. Someone must make the final decision. And that, of course, is my job,” Mälkki says.

How about “man versus woman” issues? In the world of classical chamber orchestras, does gender still matter? It does, admits Mälkki.

“I am well aware of the fact that this is a male-dominated profession. But the higher you get, the less gender matters. Talented people usually appreciate talent. It is that simple. But for sure my sex has created behavioral expectations. It would be pretty difficult for me to shout and rage at musicians as some male conductors do. Nor would I want to. Still, I try not to make gender a political issue. Having said that, I do recognise the importance and the historical context of the fact that in the spring of 2011 I should become the first woman to conduct opera in Milan’s La Scala,” Mälkki says.

“But you know what? It is not just about gender. Nationality and the cultural background matters too. In some countries musicians simply do not respect the conductor if he or she is being too friendly. On the other hand, the last time I conducted in Finland, the musicians seemed to be amused by my un-Finnish politeness. That was funny.”

For sure. Let’s talk about French.

The feel of conducting

“I have a theory. I believe French has become the language of diplomacy, because in France no-one says anything directly. See, the Finns are used to being honest, it is considered a virtue. The French, however, can wander around the conversation for eternity and still only say things in between the lines. On the other hand there is a strong tradition of voicing different opinions and freedom of speech here. That makes the French society very interesting. And different from the Scandinavian way of life that I have been used to,” Mälkki analyses.

Before moving to Eic, Mälkki held the position of Music Director at the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra (2002-2005). Even though she was happy there Eic was a career step forward. Cité de la Musique, for example, is a very versatile concert hall. The venue designed by the French architect Christian de Portzamparc opened in 1995 and now hosts concerts ranging from Patti Smith to Nina Hagen to Youssou N’dour to Gustav Mahler to Jean Sibelius to Aaron Copland to Boris Berezovsky and everything in between.

Cité de la Musique is definitely one of the most interesting concert halls in Paris. Our program is usually planned in co-operation with Cité’s administration people. That offers benefits but also creates challenges. It motivates us to be constantly innovative and creative, but also forces us to consider the financial side of it all. With a venue with a capacity this big (800-1,000 people) we cannot often perform pieces that are hardcore avant-garde since that would be too unattractive for larger audiences.”

No doubt. But how does it feel? To stand on that stage, any stage for that matter, between the audience and the musicians. How does it feel to conduct?

“Fantastic”, Mälkki says. “Even though the main thing for any conductor is not to think about how she or he feels. The conductor must, of course, be comfortable in his or her position. On a more detailed level, every conductor is different. How you use the space. How you communicate with musicians. How you adjust your energy levels depending on the size of the orchestra. See, conducting is both psychological and physical. Therefore one needs to rest enough. I, for example, always take a nap before concert.”

How about when the lights are out, the audience is gone and the show is over. How does it feel then, afterwards?

“Well, if things have worked out well, the feeling is near euphoria. If things have gone bad everyone is disappointed. Even then you accept it and move on.”

Sounds like life. And for Susanna Mälkki, music pretty much equals life nowadays.

Stages after stages

Over the past four years Mälkki has learnt a few things about leadership.

In short: the base for the possibility of success is built through good working conditions.

“If the resources are insufficient. If the overall environment is negative. If the rush becomes too overwhelming. Then everyone involved are too often too unhappy. And that is a terrible starting point for creating art. However, most of the time our working conditions are good. Besides, in my opinion the musicians of Eic seem to be much closer to each other than musicians in bigger orchestras. At least professionally speaking they are friends,” Mälkki says.

Then she looks through the window. Outside her office Paris is enjoying the last couple of days of the long summer of 2010. It is sunny and hot and beautiful. People pass the Cité de la Musique looking happy and cheerful. Even in La Villette, far away from the Louvre, Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, the streets are busy. The buses roll and the trains run just as Parisians are getting ready for another public transportation strike targeted against Nicolai Sarkozy’s controversial retirement politics. On the day of the interview the gothic-looking Finnish author sensation Sofi Oksanen is on the covers of newspapers. Oksanen too is becoming big in Paris. Susanna Mälkki already is.

In addition to her work with Eic she has, among the other things, conducted the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and performed in Opéra national de Paris, one of the most legendary opera houses in the world founded in 1669 by a certain guy called Louis XIV.

“That was a fantastic project that took two months and included 13 shows. The symphony orchestra of Paris Opera is probably the best in France and the ballet dancers are fantastic. It was extremely inspiring to watch them work,” Mälkki recalls.

“I am really excited to return to the Opera House in 2013.”

Recent seasons have included conducting gigs on the stages in Berlin London, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Boston, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Gothenburg and Helsinki. The list goes on and on, reaching all the way to the shores of New Zealand, which is probably the furthest you can go from Finland to find a quality stage. And still Susanna Mälkki, who many consider the leading female conductor in the world, is only 41. Barely a grown up in this masculine and patriarchic world of conducting. How did it all happen?

A conductor’s career

Well, it just did. Mälkki never dreamed of becoming a conductor, but she played a violin, cello and piano as a child (even though she quit the violin for some time when she was five because other things such as Donald Duck were way cooler) and later aimed to make a living out of the cello.

Born on March 13th 1969 in a family of five, Mälkki is the youngest of three children. She grew up in Vuosaari, an eastern suburb of Helsinki. She was a good kid who took care of schoolwork, played sports and was a decent little sister to her two brothers. Her parents enjoyed listening to classical music but neither were professional musicians (mum was an art teacher, dad an oceanologist who sang in choirs). Even though Mälkki learned to sing before she could speak, it was not until high school that she understood music was her thing to do in this universe. Realising it only took about ten days in the end.

“It was either the summer of 1986, 1987 or 1988. I was attending a music camp in Kuhmo (a small city in the eastern part of Finland famous for its annual Chamber Music Festival). I was deeply touched by some of the concerts, performances, teachers and the overall atmosphere. When I returned home my relationship with music had transformed. I became 100 percent certain that I wanted to make a living out of music,” Mälkki remembers.

So she turned her focus to music and started getting serious with the cello.

In 1994 Mälkki won a prestigious cello competition in Finland. Between 1995-1998 she was appointed first cellist at the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, a position Mälkki eventually left in order to pursue a career in conducting. In 1998 she participated in a workshop at the Carnegie Hall under the supervision of the Finnish masters Jorma Panula and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Subsequently in the Fall of 1995 she enrolled to the Sibelius Academy’s conducting class in Helsinki and studied under Panula (whose teaching methods Mälkki describes as practical and effective) and Leif Segerstam (whom Mälkki recalls as a technically brilliant conductor but also as someone who was not afraid to engage in philosophical conversation). She graduated in 2000 and started her spell as an international freelancer and got the position in Stavanger, Norway in 2001 from where she joined the Eic in 2006. That’s about it.

Mälkki has built her career (she is averse to the word) with patience, step-by-step, without unnecessary self-bragging. As a conductor Mälkki still considers herself young.

“Youth is something that brings energy and sincerity. But in this profession experience is priceless. The older I get the more I admire conductors who have been able to last long in this business. The late Carlos Kleiber, for example, was one of my heroes. His elegance was something I admired a lot,”,Mälkki says.

“You know what they say, right? The best conductors are either old or dead.”

The way of life

The next day Susanna Mälkki sits in a restaurant in the Marais district, near the area of Bastille. It is Wednesday, the last day of the Parisian summer 2010. The morning already feels chilly when the interview continues. Mälkki wears a green jacket, dark trousers, brown leather shoes and a light scarf. She is not hungry because she has eaten breakfast at home (Mälkki lives a few blocks away in an “old and nice” apartment building from the 1900s) so she settles for an espresso.

Across the street is Place des Vosges, the oldest planted square in Paris, which was built by Henry IV between 1605-1612. Today the park is full of 20-something art students lying on the green grass and drawing black and white sketches of 400-year-old buildings around them. It seems like a pretty good day here in Paris. It seems like a pretty good life here in Paris.

“This is a wonderful city to live in. Compared to Helsinki the climate is pleasant as well. Just think about it, it is the end of September now and it is still this warm. I cannot say that I miss all that horizontal rain from Stavanger either,” Mälkki says.

Then she smiles, again.

“But what really amazes me is the historical perspective of Paris. Did you know that in the 17th century they used to have chivalry tournaments right over there in the park? How fascinating is that?”

Next to our table there is a street musician, an old man playing the violin and trying to collect an extra euro or two. For him music looks to be a way of surviving. For Mälkki it is a way of life. And a way of surviving.

“For me music represents the highest form of human communication. I simply could not live with out it,” Mälkki says.

Lucky for us all that she does not have to.

Photo: Simon Fowler