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Susanna Mälkki: With a great orchestra you have the whole range. The sound palette doesn't have any limitations, so you have the big engine but you can also have just a feather, and I find that incredibly fascinating.
Kristy Geslain: Susanna Mälkki, who was recently named Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has entered the ranks of the most sought-after conductors in the classical music world. While here at Lincoln Center to conduct the New York Philharmonic, Mälkki spoke with me about how she prepares for a program—whether it's a classic or a brand-new composition—as well as the role of a guest conductor, collaborating across genres, and defending the intentions of the composer.
This is Lincoln Center with Susanna Mälkki.
KG: In reading about your work last season and this upcoming season, it seems like you're all over the place. You're in New York and L.A. and Chicago and Berlin. How do you balance this all?
SM: You know, it goes very much in phases. Because an offer, an invitation from an orchestra may just land on the particular week, and then it's either take it or leave it, you know? So I can't always plan. But I do have the choice, and I have a wonderful, understanding agent, also. And, of course, the temptations are great, if the New York Philharmonic calls, you want to go. So I'm not complaining.
And I also always make sure and increasingly make sure that I have time to rest and I feel it's incredibly important to have time to study. I think study includes everything that makes the performance better, because conductors' work is mostly invisible. We do a huge amount of preparation before we even meet the orchestra. And then we use a few hours with the orchestra together and then the audience is the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. And I think it's very important that the ground is solid and well thought of. I find that very, very important. For my own sake, but also for the sake of the works being performed.
I feel the responsibility on my shoulders, because the conductor is really also defending the intentions of the composer. I think it's—the least we can do is to be informed about what we should be doing.
KG: And how does that change when it's an old master versus a lot of new compositions, which you're also working with?
SM: It's a good question. I think fundamentally the work is the same. We really have to read the score, and even a piece which you know very well, it's always very important to go back to the text, so to speak, and try to see the score with new eyes and also question the old solutions you may have taken or question the solutions others have taken. I think it's very important.
It's not necessarily easier when you get an old warhorse and you have 50 recordings on it. And I try not to listen to the recordings at a too-early stage, so that I can have my own idea of the piece. And then it's interesting. It's important to know the tradition, of course. So you have to listen and I go—I like to go to concerts also, so I want to hear performances and I don't think that I'm easily influenced if I have a musical idea. I usually stick to it anyway. But in terms of really new, brand-new pieces, world premieres, it takes a bit longer, of course, because you have to figure out everything and there may be questions. Maybe the composer's intentions are not always 100 percent clear, so you have to ask questions, but that's also a luxury to be able to do that with living composers.
KG: What is your signature? What is Susanna Mälkki's approach to a piece?
SM: I think it's really important that the music lives and breathes. Because sometimes people say that I do a very analytical job and you hear textures and I think it's also interesting because of course all those things are there, but they don't make sense, in my opinion, unless there is a musical intention and, you know, maybe tension being built up and then released or, you know, some forward-going motions. It's really, really interesting, because music is an art form in time, I think, and composers are the architects of time.
There are many aspects, of course, endless amounts of different things to take care of, but I really think I want to approach all music as music. That's my aim.
KG: So let's talk about some of the projects that you have coming up. You recently were appointed principal guest conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Congratulations.
SM: Thank you.
KG: So tell us what that role is. What is a guest principal conductor? What will you be doing?
SM: Well, firstly I just want to say that it's an incredible pleasure and privilege to be working there because it's quite an exciting place. The orchestra is fantastic, of course, but it's also an institution which is really open for everything. And I think they wanted me to be part of it because I have crazy ideas in terms of what pieces are interesting, and since I know a lot of contemporary music, also, I can bring those ideas to them.
Usually orchestras have their music director or chief conductor, and then the principal guest conductor is somebody who comes a little bit more often than other guest conductors. Guest conductors come once a year or once every two years, but the principal guest conductor—in my case, I have three subscription weeks with the orchestra per season, so it's more.
And that allows us also to do programming which is more than just a visit card of what I'm doing, but we can actually build themes around programs. For example, now next week I'm going there and we are doing this program with a piece by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, a cello concerto, which was written for dancers, and we are actually doing with dance, so the orchestra commissioned a choreography to go with the performance, and that's a project which is quite unusual. And I am very, very happy that we can do these kind of unusual things over there.
KG: Do you see that as becoming more of a trend, these collaborations with classical music and different art forms, the pop world. I mean, you see it more and more. Do you think that's going to be a trend that continues?
SM: Probably. Yes, I think the symphony orchestras are, of course, sort of an institution of the old times, but we are modern people and the orchestra is actually a hyper instrument which can do anything and then there can be instruments added and so forth. Then it's, of course, a very, very big question whether—because symphony orchestra is basically an acoustical instrument. And there is this art of orchestration, and then whether we should use symphony orchestras just to be some kind of sound tapestry on top of electronic music, that's a larger question.
And the composers who are doing these kind of projects have a big challenge there, of course, and they need to choose their aesthetics. I think it's all great, and it's important to be very open and also, you know, there are film concerts, and all that. From my part, I'm actually thinking a lot about how much people know about the so-called familiar repertory and how we could present that in a fresh way or to combine it with, you know, more radical art music composers.
I'm a little bit of an idealist in this case. I wouldn't necessarily venture into the pop world, because there's so much incredibly interesting music that people don't know, especially written in the 20th century. But I think it's very important that orchestras are available and open and not sort of too picky or too snobbish about the projects they are doing, because that's also the reputation.
KG: Yeah, yeah. Well, further to that question, you know better than most, I mean, you're working with all these orchestras around the world, so you kind of have a front-row seat to sort of the big picture of classical music right now and something that we hear again and again in all sorts of meetings here at Lincoln Center is how are we getting younger audiences in the door? How are we getting more diverse audiences? How are we getting new audiences? And it's one thing to say the performance has to be great and then they'll come back, but even that first step of getting new people into the concert hall to begin with...
SM: That's the trickiest step. But then people are mostly really, really positively surprised. "Oh, wow. It was interesting." I just actually had a discussion about this last night with some people. There is this new urban generation of thirtysomethings who, when they go out, they want a, you know, complete experience.
So, I don't know if, you know, there should be cocktails before and then a little bit of a concert and then a Q&A after. And of course, artists need to be more available these days than they used to be, you know. Because we have to be not only advocates for the music and the art and the composers, but also for ourselves, in a way, which I, for example, feel not comfortable with at all, because I wouldn't want to. But then I understand that my name may be some kind of guarantee for something and then I just have to accept that it's part of it. But it has taken me years to actually accept that role as well.
KG: How do orchestras differ? I mean, I would think that the L.A. Philharmonic is very different from the New York Philharmonic is very different from Berlin Philharmonic is very different from etc., etc., and you've worked with all of these different groups.
SM: Of course it's collaboration, so the orchestra is my instrument for the week. So, of course, the qualities of the orchestra is what people will hear, and then I can choose to highlight certain things or work on certain things, and my starting point is always with the composition, with the work at hand. And maybe, if I reflect on that, I will think about it when choosing a particular program for the orchestra in question.
But then when I'm doing a piece of music I'm actually approaching it from the score. Once more, we go back to the music itself and to the text, and then I'm trying to obtain the results, the so-called ideal results, which may vary from week to week.
But then I can still do my interpretation, I can change, you know, even if we are following the texts very, very clearly, we can still sound very different from week to week, and I find that extremely fascinating. With a great orchestra you have the whole sound palette. You have all the tools and then you can really choose what you want to do if the people are willing to work with you, of course. But they have been, and that's really, really a luxury and, you know, it's like—with a great orchestra you have the whole range. The sound palette doesn't have any limitations, so you have the big engine but you can also have just a feather, and I find that incredibly fascinating.
When I am working with a very good orchestra, I try to really use all of that, you know—that we really polish every possible corner and I love that.
"My task is always to make the orchestra sound as good as they possibly can sound. And I'm kind of opening doors, giving room for the incredible instrumentalists to shine, because that's also what the composers want."
KG: What an incredible thing. I just can't imagine the sense of—well, I guess it's got to be a certain power and intensity of standing in front of an orchestra of 100 incredible musicians, you know, all ready to do what you're asking them to do and to be able to play at such a high level.
SM: Oh, my God, I feel really fortunate to be here with these experiences. But, you know, it's also—yes, it is a power in a way, but it's also a responsibility and it's also, I think, inviting . . . My task is always to make the orchestra sound as good as they possibly can sound. And I'm kind of opening doors, giving room for the incredible instrumentalists to shine, because that's also what the composers want.
So I am not imposing. I don't want to be ordering people what to do. I'm rather suggesting, and then sometimes, like this week, you know, there are a lot of things that don't even need to be said because I just suggest something maybe with a gesture or a couple of words and then they will immediately get the idea and then they will fulfill it in the way which they can do with all their instrumental skills and so forth. So this kind of give-and-take is really the best conducting situation, I think.
KG: So I do want to talk about a topic that is particularly important just now, and I kind of struggled with this because, on the one hand, I do want to say, "What is it like being one of the only female conductors working at this level?" I mean, that's such a huge thing. And on the other hand, I don't want that to be the only piece of the story.
SM: Yeah, I appreciate that.
KG: So I guess just start with your general feelings on that. Like even talking about gender politics in your work and in your field, what comes to mind?
SM: Initially, what comes to mind is that I have my background in music, and I always saw myself as a musician. I have an instrumental training. I played in orchestra and I know repertory and I know composers. So my starting point has always been music, and then this subject of gender is something that has been—I mean, of course, I don't even want to deny that I'm, you know, a woman and I'm proudly so, but what I'm doing—in what I'm doing, that has, in my opinion, not any importance whatsoever.
But, of course, there are traditions, and I have to say that I've noticed how, you know, even at a very young age, you know, I was nine years old and I could see that some teachers would speak to boys differently than they would speak to girls, and I've been always seeing this very clearly. And I guess I might have started with conducting earlier if I had been a boy.
So that's already, you know, I knew that it would be a different path for me. But then I'm also happy that I had my training, you know, and I don't think anyway that conducting is a profession for young people. You know, you need a lot of life experience and, you know, you need at least 10 years before really knowing what you're doing, at least that's been the case for me, and I think it's for everybody.
So being then thrown into this political debate on gender is a little bit of a—I don't want to say it's a burden because of course I'm very proud that I can be a role model for many young conductors and so forth, and it's important. It's very, very—it's a fantastic thing that times are changing.
KG: There's a quote that I read in another interview that you had. You said, "I've always tried to stay neutral on this subject. I've not complained about difficulties nor have I used it to my advantage." Do you ever worry that talking about it too much would be seen as just that; somehow complaining or trying to take advantage because you're a woman or something like that? Is there a fear of that piece?
SM: Yeah, I've felt that it was, on many occasions, that was the only thing that would come up. That actually my artistic competence or actually even things that I'd be doing would not be of interest, just this one topic. But I think—and I am also now in a different position to talk about this whole thing, because I have already shown that I can do it, you know, whereas 20 years ago when I was beginning, I just wanted to learn my job and get to work, you know, and not to be on sort of barricades about things.
I would want to do it my way through the work, which I think is the best thing. Then, using it to my advantage, I think then we come to marketing, of course, and what kind of images people want to—you know, how they want to present themselves and, of course, it's all very different to women than what it is for men, because men are always neutral and women are always seen through a certain kind of filter of how they should be or, you know, there's so much more judgment about how they look, or how we look.
And I sometimes feel that it's, you know, I'm doing the same slope, but there are just so many more flags, and just kind of trying to get through all those flags but not needing to talk about it all the time has been my strategy. I prefer to be a doer rather than a talker. There are lots of female conductors, of course, fortunately, now already, so they also have more choice, I think.
KG: Sure. Who were you looking at when you were coming up? Were there really any women in that space?
SM: Not really. Not really. But again, I've never chosen my idols depending on how they look. You know, I've been listening to recordings and if I go to concerts, of course I'm—we all see, I mean, the conductor is always such a central figure on the stage, so you can't help perceiving what the conductor is doing, but I can see through podium gestures, you know, if there are people who look great, but the playing can still sound bad.
Or there can be people who are not really interested in how they present themselves, but the musical results can be incredible. And I know what purpose I want to serve and maybe, you know, if I look back maybe I could have done some things differently when I started and . . . I don't know, I wanted to be a little bit punk about it and really not care. But of course it doesn't work because we are artists and, you know. But I did what worked for me, and I'm glad that it worked.
KG: Yeah. It worked really well.
SM: In spite of everything. Yeah, because it's very important to keep your integrity, and you can't really be anybody else. And I also think that the conductor is really there for the others. And I also know—I've discussed this with musicians and I've been in orchestra myself, and nothing is more annoying for players than somebody who is just incredibly self-conscious, you know, a conductor who is just concerned about how he or she is looking. And of course it may be fun for the audiences to watch, but I think we are deceiving the music if we go that path. But yeah, it's some kind of a visual art and it has to—I mean, what we do has to look purposeful. But I just wish there would be a little bit less talk about dresses and hair.
KG: Do you think the current cultural moment with #MeToo and all of these things that are happening right now, has that impacted your impulse to speak about this more or bring this into even your mind a little bit more?
SM: Perhaps. Because all of these things have come up, maybe there are less naïve questions about, "Why are there so few female conductors?" And many times, when I've got this question, I'm thinking, just, "You have no idea." A lot of things had to happen before women could be in positions of power.
KG: Even playing in an orchestra.
SM: Well, even—exactly. I mean, if we only look at orchestras. The men have been the gatekeepers, and until also men have awareness of these things, things can't happen. And maybe the #MeToo, I mean, I know personally many, many—I have male friends who've said that, "Oh my god, I had no idea that it can be this bad."
SM: And classical music, and of course we have some revelations just, you know, very recently, and it's all pretty upsetting. And, you know, now everything is transparent in today's society, and that's a good thing. But still, you know, it's all about what should be done. The discussion should be open because we want things to be done in the best way possible. We know we need competent people, and that should be the main goal.
KG: All right, Susanna, thank you so much. We really appreciate you taking the time. I wish you a beautiful concert while you're here.
SM: Thank you so much.
KG: This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell, Valerie Martinez, Eileen Willis, Hannah Lyons, and Ian Goldstein.
Our theme music is provided by freemusicarchive.org.
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