Susanna Mälkki on Sibelius, Elgar, and becoming a conductor

As Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Susanna Mälkki is in demand around the world. We caught up with her ahead of her return to the LSO on 15 April.

You made your debut with the LSO last season with a programme of Brahms and Strauss. What were your experiences of working with the LSO for the first time?

Oh, it’s fantastic. Of course I’d heard so much about the orchestra years ago and had heard them in concerts too, and I was really excited to see, to hear, and to get to make music with them. The kind of enjoyment of the music making which obviously is based on the virtuosity of every single player – it’s a fantastic team of excellent musicians and I had the greatest experience with them.

What are you looking forward to in your performance on 15 April in the Barbican?

I’m very happy to meet the Orchestra again, that’s the first thing to say. But then, doing a Sibelius symphony with any orchestra abroad is also always special, especially in the UK where the Sibelius tradition is very long and maybe stronger than almost any other foreign country except for in Scandinavia. I’m very fond of the Fifth Symphony and I hope that the orchestra will be happy to do it the way I hear it. It’s a piece with which I’ve grown up with, and I have a strong connection to it. 

I’m also very happy to meet Daniel Müller-Schott again. We worked together a really long time ago, it must have been at least 15 years ago, and it’s always very nice to get back together with somebody you’ve played with early on. He’s a wonderful player, so I’m very much looking forward to that.

And then we have the world premiere by a composer who’s in association with the Orchestra, Patrick Giguère. I think it’s wonderful that the LSO is doing this kind of programme with young composers and I’ll do my best to make it a good experience for the young composer and to do justice to the piece.

You’ve been a champion of contemporary music and have given a lot of world premiere performances. Why is this important to you?

'I think music is a living tradition and we have to make sure that it continues to be a living tradition.'

I think that’s the simple answer to that. A living tradition can mean keeping the old masters alive, but it also has to be able to be born in our day. In order to make sure that in the future there will also be music from our time, we have to give this music a chance to exist. I think that’s extremely important. In theatre, they can do theatre plays of today as well as Shakespeare which is always relevant, and I think music should not be an exception in this stance. It’s a living art form.

Sibelius is a national figure in Finland and you’ve known his music for a long time. How do you approach conducting a work like this that’s very well-known and has a lot of importance culturally?

It’s an interesting question because of course my Finnishness probably plays a strong role, but it’s also something that I’m not really able to separate from my musical ideas because it’s almost like my mother tongue musically. I guess there are many levels in that music which I take for granted. I do question what I feel about the music, but the feeling is very instinctive as well as analytical.

'I’m not really worried about doing things differently from somebody else because I feel a very strong connection to what Sibelius wrote.'

One interpretation can exist along with all the others. If I’ve done other Sibelius Symphonies before, and people say ‘wow, I never heard it like this’, I think it’s a good thing. I don’t feel like there is a huge burden on my shoulders to follow the tradition. It’s a reading of the piece and of course combined with what the orchestra is proposing, which is of course a luxurious situation because the LSO is an excellent orchestra. There are many of these symphonies that I’ve performed many times, and I guess that there’s some kind of fundamental viewpoint which you can hear that comes from me, but then if I do the Fifth Symphony with this orchestra or another orchestra it will not sound exactly the same. And it shouldn’t either.

And how does the Fifth Symphony fit in to Sibelius’ wider body of work?

We know that he stopped composing relatively early. So he was not yet an old composer, but he was definitely in full bloom. He’s really found his own language and we know that this piece was something that he worked on for a long time and made considerable changes to. He merged two movements and really worked through these motifs over and over again. I think it’s a really fascinating piece because it has, typically for him, a beautiful combination of something universal and abstract and at the same time something very genuinely him. It has elements which can be seen as folkloric but I think he goes far beyond that.

It’s interesting that this piece came after the Fourth Symphony which was very different in character and much darker and reflective. In some sense I guess people can relate to the Fifth Symphony easier than they would do with the Fourth or the Sixth even. But it’s part of a very natural development if you look at everything he wrote – I think it fits perfectly right where it is. It’s definitely a work of a mature composer who knows his language. 

Watch Susanna conducting Sibelius' Second Symphony

As a cellist you’ve performed the Elgar Cello Concerto. How does that bring you insight when you’re conducting on the podium?

I very much respect the soloist and the place of the soloist. With soloists and concertos I always want to be a collaborative conductor to work with because I know the challenges from the soloist point of view. Also, I know how easily a symphony orchestra would just be able to overpower a soloist. One of the important tasks of a conductor in a concerto is to make sure that the soloist is given the space he or she is meant to have so that it is how the composer wanted it.

If it is a piece that I have played myself of course I’m able to interpret even the tiniest little nuances or almost have perhaps a sixth sense, because I can almost feel the fingers going and I know where the corners are. I hope that it transmits a sort of ease for the soloist to feel very comfortable and play as he wishes to play.

Why do you think Elgar’s Concerto has such an important place in the cello repertoire?

It’s an incredible concerto, it’s beautiful, I love it and I’ve always loved it. I know that for the British audience the piece is very, very special, of course, because of Jaqueline du Pré. This concerto has become definitely one of the greatest cello concertos and we are – I say now we as a cellist – very lucky to have it, because it’s wonderful. It shows the cello in so many fantastic ways, all the different voices of the cello are there. The virtuosity in the fast movement, the lamentoso and the beautiful melodies. It’s a fantastic piece and I’m always happy to perform it. And I should also add that I’m not envious of the soloist at all, I just want to be there for it as I enjoy it when it’s beautifully played. No hidden agendas anywhere!

You started off as a cellist, so what made you want to pursue conducting rather than the cello?

I played in orchestras from very early age, first youth orchestras and then as a student, and I always enjoyed enormously being part of the big sound and making music, sitting next to somebody and sharing the part. There’s this incredible power or force in the orchestra and I loved that. I felt that the orchestra sound always for me was the greatest, most fascinating, in a way, because I see an orchestra like a kind of a super-instrument which is able to do everything, and the team element is central.

I realised when I started conducting and studying conducting that the way I had thought about music all along was how a conductor thinks about music – how it works structurally, the inner logic in a piece, the importance of the right tempi. I guess when I first got the possibility to try conducting with a small group I just felt immediately very comfortable with the idea of actually pulling all the strings, getting to work with the sound and with the piece and making things fall in to place. In the end the decision came quite naturally, I just thought that I would give myself a possibility to try how it would be and started my studies. I did want to finish my cello studies as well so I was not in any way being naïve about it. I wanted to have a solid professional experience as a musician first, and I’m very happy that I have this experience in working professionally in an orchestra, and I think that has been really, really helpful. 


What are the skills that you need to develop to be a good conductor?

'I think the most important thing is to have a strong musical vision.'

The rest is really handcraft, you have to be able to show what you want, you have to be able to communicate with people, you have to understand what playing on an instrument means. Of course, it’s important to have good instincts, but you also have to be able to think different parameters to analyse and understand the compositions on a more profound level. In addition, all about the work with the orchestra in a rehearsal situation, you have to be able to give the information the musicians need. There are many, many different levels on this. But I think the most important thing is really that you have something to say. There must be a reason why we play a piece.

What advice would you have for young conductors just starting their careers?

I think if I would say only one thing, I would say that believe in your musical vision. And study your scores very carefully. Those are really the important things. Learning the craft takes decades. People should not be too impatient about what would be definition of success. If there is a direct communication between the piece of music and the musician that you are then I think everything will be fine and whatever form it will take remains to be seen. Fundamentally, if the will to be in service to the music is there, then I think it is right.

Susanna Mälkki returns for her second Barbican performance with the London Symphony Orchestra on Sunday 15 April at 7pm, conducting a world premiere piece by Patrick Giguère commissioned as part of the Panufnik Composers Scheme, Elgar’s Cello Concerto with cellist Daniel Müller-Schott as soloist and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony.