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Spaces and pigeonholes

by Hanna Isolammi

Susanna Mälkki began her three-year term as Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra this autumn. We asked her about the themes of her first HPO year and her thoughts about links between music and the cultural environment.

“I’d like the themes I’ve selected to show just how universal music is. When we focus on a specific idiom in depth, it broadens the expressive palette of the orchestra enormously, and the connections between works are also highlighted.

“I chose ‘French’ as one of the themes for my first year for a variety of reasons, perhaps above all because I felt I could start by bringing that kind of knowledge with me, since I’ve been assimilating that atmosphere for quite some time now,” Susanna Mälkki says.

In addition to Finnish and French music, the Helsinki Philharmonic will be performing a lot of Russian music. Mälkki considers it equally important to perform core repertoire at concerts, and Russian repertoire is one of the traditional strengths of the orchestra.


Musical atmospheres and cultural spaces

Space – sound in space – is an element in all music in some way. A concrete example of this is Ligeti’s Atmosphères, which will be performed at the first concert of the season. Mälkki considers it the first musical work of the space age. However, the term ‘space’ can be understood in multiple ways.

Another theme of this year, Orientalism in music, also has to do with musical atmosphere. Mälkki describes this trend as a manifestation of a longing for far-off places, which is universal to the human spirit. Music serves to bring the sights and sounds of an exotic land to the listener. “I’m fascinated by the way a particular sound can transport an entire world with it, in the same way as smells can,” says Mälkki.

Mälkki refers to language in discussing the possibility of sensing a specific cultural environment in music: “In a large enough sample and with sufficient generalisation, it may indeed be possible to sense in the music the environment in which it was created. But this begs the question: does culture shape language, or does language shape culture?” It is known that the structure of a person’s native language influences the way they think, and by extension a composer’s idiom is likely to embed indications of their native language. “It gets particularly interesting when we consider exactly what features in the music create contrasts. In this, every creative artist is in a way a pathfinder for his or her ideas, irrespective of their cultural background,” notes Mälkki.

A composer’s native musical language and the environment in which they grow up naturally have a bearing on his or her expression. “The music that people write in a land where Christmas carols are melancholic is very different from that of a land with salsa rhythms. It’s only natural. The typically broad horizons of Finnish music may have something to do with the slow shifting of seasons or our wide open spaces,” says Mälkki. “It’s just as well that we have the music, so that we don’t need to explain this in words!”

Having said that, Mälkki notes that all good music includes both elements typical of the composer’s culture and other influences but above all depends on the composer’s personality and what he or she wants to express. “I have found, though, that the music of many Finnish composers ultimately turns to sweeping arcs, broad horizons and an ‘epic’ quality, whatever that is. With great heaviness comes great hidden power.” French music, by contrast, is typically seen as being light on thematic work and very much about rich tonal colour and tiny details. “But we should remember that there are dark colours under the surface in French music too; they just manifest themselves in very different ways,” Mälkki points out.


Territories and pigeonholes

When the programme of the Helsinki Philharmonic for this season was published in the spring, several writers commented that the orchestra’s profile was drifting closer to that of the other major Helsinki orchestra, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; the common perception is that the FRSO, on average, performs repertoire that is newer. Mälkki dispels the notion.

“The Helsinki Philharmonic has always performed more contemporary music than people think. Both Leif Segerstam and John Storgårds brought in a lot of interesting music according to their respective tastes. It’s more about styles and aesthetic than the dates when particular pieces were written,” she explains. “It is true that the Helsinki Philharmonic hasn’t performed as much early 20th-century repertoire recently as it used to, but our repertoire shift is part of a bigger picture than the scene in Helsinki and the FRSO: as far as I know, no Finnish orchestra has previously planned a thematic framework for an entire season.”

Susanna Mälkki says it is understandable that the media creates and maintains profiles for performing artists and orchestras: “There is a tendency to pigeonhole people for easy reference. This is restrictive, because it blurs a deeper understanding of music as a grand continuum extending through the centuries,” she says. How the profile of a performing artist is established has much to do with his or her first engagements and their location, the desires and circumstances of his or her partners, and the context of concerts and rehearsals. “For myself, contemporary music was the genre in which I found my first professional opportunities in Finland, and this ‘labelled’ me in a way that has been difficult to shake off… perhaps this made me more acceptable, though, since as a woman in this profession I was a marginal sort of person anyway,” says Mälkki.

In appointing Mälkki Chief Conductor, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra has demonstrated that it was able to disregard the contemporary label. “It’s an unprejudiced orchestra that can see beyond appearances. There are wonderful years ahead,” Mälkki says happily.

In December 2016 Susanna Mälkki makes her debut with The Metropolitan Opera conducting its premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin in a new production by Robert Lepage. See Kaija Saariaho’s interview here.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Main photo: Stefan Bremer