The Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra steps in for an indisposed Valery Gergiev on Sunday 12 March, making her LSO debut a year earlier than planned. Here’s five things you need to know about the life and career of Susanna Mälkki …
1. She began her career as a cello player …
Mälkki’s first instrument was the violin, but she switched to the cello at the age of nine and studied at the Sibelius Academy and at the Royal Academy of Music in London. In 1994 she won first prize in the Turku National Cello Competition and the next year she became Principal Cello of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, a post she retained until 1998.
2. … before switching to conducting
'I had always been interested in conducting. As an orchestral player I'd always analysed what worked and what didn't. Even after my cello studies the idea was still in my head.' – The Guardian
So while she was still playing in the orchestra in Gotherburg Mälkki also applied to the prestigious conducting course at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki (which boasts Sakari Oramo, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Osmo Vänskä among its former pupils). She was accepted and commuted between Gothenburg and Helsinki for years before deciding to settle on a career in conducting.
3. Thomas Adès came to her diploma exam
Mälkki’s final assignment at the Academy was to conduct the Finnish premiere of Thomas Adès’ chamber opera Powder Her Face. The composer himself was in the audience and noticed Mälkki’s talent; he asked her to assist him in other performances of the work back in England. It was there that she met her agent, and began to get attention with guest performances at the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.
4. New music is in her blood
Mälkki was the Music Director of the formidable Ensemble Intercontemporain from 2006 to 2013, made her BBC Proms debut with the London Sinfonietta in 2007, and has remained committed to programming contemporary music even in her roles as the head of more traditional ensembles.
5. She’s breaking ground, but more interested in the music
Mälkki’s career developed when there were few, if any, prominent women conductors. 'There are historical reasons why I was hesitant at the beginning, or wary' she told the New York Times. 'It was not an option, really. If you think 20, 25 years ago, it was very different back then. Things have changed quite quickly.' Even in 2011, when she led the world premiere of Luca Francesconi’s opera Quartett, she was still the first woman ever to conduct at La Scala. This issue has followed her through her entire career, especially as she rose to occupy conductor positions that were exclusively male until her. But she doesn’t discuss this anymore because really, only one thing is important. She told the Financial Times in 2015:
'I think I’m done with the subject. I gave it a lot of thought earlier but there is nothing you can say in one sentence that covers the whole thing so I prefer to keep quiet and get on with my work. I’m a musician and that’s it really.'
Susanna Mälkki makes her LSO debut on Sunday 12 March, conducting the Brahms Violin Concerto and Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra. Tickets are scarce, but be sure to catch her when she returns on Sunday 15 April 2018 for a programme of Patrick Giguère, Elgar and Sibelius.