But the main thing with Mälkki, who is music director of the Helsinki Philharmonic in her native Finland and former music of the Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain, is not that she brings something foreign to, or lacking in, the L.A. Phil. More to the point is how much a natural she is for this versatile and venturesome orchestra.
She is a product of the same conducting program at the Sibelius Academy that Esa-Pekka Salonen was in before her (and Salonen became one of her mentors). She began her professional career with the Gothenburg Symphony; a decade later it was this Swedish orchestra that made an unproven Dudamel its music director.
What the 48-year-old Mälkki does bring is, first and probably foremost, the ability to create viscerally arresting performances. She ended Friday’s program with a rousing performance of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” There was a sharp-edged, crystalline clarity to the sound of the orchestra — every solo instrument and every section — making a striking effect. There was, equally, exceptional vitality. Imagine a Pierre Boulez who could dance. The orchestra was as thrilled as the audience, and it showed.
Still, however well she fits in in L.A., Mälkki may wind up making the biggest difference through her strong connection with many of the most important European composers (at a time when America has become more provincial than I’ve ever known when it comes to the musical news from overseas). One such composer is Luca Francesconi. The U.S. premiere of the Italian’s violin concerto, “Duende: The Dark Notes,” was the major work on the first half of the Friday program. It was written for Leila Josefowicz, another of Mälkki’s close collaborators and a violinist who also happens to be a member of the extended L.A. Phil family. Salonen’s Violin Concerto and Adams’ “Scheherazade.2,” arguably the two finest violin concertos of this century, were written for her.