Susanna Mälkki has been lauded as the 2017 Conductor of the Year, by Musical America. She will receive the award at a ceremony in New York City on December 8 at the historic Carnegie Hall. Previous honorees include conductors Osmo Vänskä, Marin Alsop, and Gianandrea Noseda, alongside other luminaries of the field. Read an excerpt from the Musical America feature below, and enjoy the entire article at the following link.
From Musical America: Musical America, now in its third century as the indispensable resource for the performing arts, today announced the winners of the annual Musical America Awards, recognizing artistic excellence and achievement in the arts.
The announcement precedes the December publication of the 2017 Musical America International Directory of the Performing Arts, which, in addition to its comprehensive industry listings, pays homage to each of these artists in its editorial pages.
The annual Musical America Awards will be presented in a special ceremony at Carnegie Hall.
Susanna Mälkki, 2017 Conductor of the Year: The Finnish maestra became chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic this season, will make her Met Opera debut conducting Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin in December, and led major debuts with U.S. orchestras. She becomes principal guest conductor of the LAPhil next season.
At the Lucerne Festival in late August 2004, a young conductor, not widely known at the time, made a packed concert hall sit up by creating thrilling, vital music with the Ensemble InterContemporain in a program of works by the English monumental modernist Harrison Birtwistle. Memory stirred. Yes, this was the very individual who had, two years before, and also at Lucerne, done the same thing conducting Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. That a musician could be equally adept—and equally remarkable—in new music and in one of the great but so often under-rehearsed and undervalued standards was astonishing. This was the kind of artistry that had made people pay attention to David Robertson a decade or so earlier. Now there was a new, more exotic name to learn: Susanna Mälkki.
Belonging to the 50 percent of world-ranking conductors these days who are Finnish, Mälkki studied, like the rest of that cohort, with Jorma Panula. He was, she says, “a very important person in my becoming a conductor,” though the decision had been made before she joined his class at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. There she also trained as a cellist, and it was with her cello on the plane or train seat beside her that she began her professional career, while continuing her conducting studies.
She was, most importantly, principal cellist of the symphony orchestra in Gothenburg, Sweden, between 1995 and 1998, when she was in her late twenties. Neeme Järvi was the music director then, but Gothenburg also attracted outstanding guest conductors, and Mälkki observed them all. “It was interesting to see and hear how the orchestra changed, and how the all-important interaction worked, the collaboration between conductor and players.”
After Gothenburg, she began gaining wider experience on the podium, and got her start as a music director with the orchestra in Stavanger, Norway, in 2002. The Birtwistle concert in Lucerne, two years later, was her first with the Ensemble InterContemporain, and led to a position as its music director, between 2006 and 2013.
It was a role for which she was suited. “I had already found as a cellist,” she recalls, “that there was a totally different energy when I was playing new music. I felt more directly in contact with the music and also more liberated, not so bound by what I had been told by my teachers—though Panula, I should add, was so important partly because he encouraged you to find your own way. Also, I think as a musician you may respond more immediately to music composed by someone of your own time, living in the same world as you do.”
However, the hallmark of a Mälkki performance is the fresh expressiveness she brings to music whether new or old, as those 2004 Lucerne concerts demonstrated. “What really interests me in music,” she says, “is the subtext, the reason why the notes are as they are. In the case of new music, there is a reason why composers do all these crazy things; they mean something, express something.” Does she, then, feel it useful to explore period techniques in order to retrieve what music may have meant and expressed in the past? “It’s very important to be informed about these things, but what’s essential is not to force the music in any particular direction, to let the music have its own flow.”
Since the beginning of this season she has been chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, her first such position with a major orchestra. There she has the chance to build programs that reflect her taste and experience, most often including at least one piece from the last 50 years or so in each concert. Her season opener had newish works by two leading Finnish composers of today, Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg, in a triple-decker sandwich with Ligeti, Sibelius, and Ravel.