Susanna Mälkki is at the top of her field as major American orchestras search for their next music directors.
It was late morning recently, not long after sunrise, as members of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra unwrapped their scarves, unpacked their instruments and settled in for rehearsal at the Musiikkitalo concert hall here.
The orchestra’s chief conductor, Susanna Mälkki, walked in from the wings, stopping to banter with players as she made her way to the podium. Once there, she removed her medical mask with a feigned look of relief and raised a baton. With no words and barely a pause, a Lamborghini going from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye, the orchestra launched into the galloping grandeur of Szymanowski’s Concert Overture.
Mälkki’s rehearsals tend to unfold like this, with seamless shifts between cordiality and efficiency. A former orchestral cellist, she understands the value of concision in a conductor and precisely articulates what she wants. With results: Her performances often strike a remarkable balance of clarity and urgency, whether shepherding a premiere or reinvigorating a classic.
The classical music field has taken notice. At 52, Mälkki is one of the world’s top conductors, widely sought between her appearances in Helsinki and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, of which she is the principal guest conductor. And with openings on the horizon at major American orchestras — especially the New York Philharmonic, which she leads at Carnegie Hall on Jan. 6, and which is searching for a music director to succeed Jaap van Zweden in 2024 — her name is on leading wish lists.
“I’m counting my blessings, that I get to work with all these orchestras,” Mälkki said during a series of interviews this fall. “Any speculation — there’s no need for that.”
She is aware of the eyes on her, and of the pressure to appoint women in the United States, where there are currently no female music directors among the largest 25 orchestras. (Nathalie Stutzmann takes the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s podium next year.)
“My standpoint has always been that since I do not wish that my gender is something that is held against me, I also shall not use it to benefit from it,” Mälkki said, adding, “Music, with the capital M, remains its own independent entity — and that, for me, is the best part.”
Her work, she said, should speak for itself. And it does: “Susanna has to be at the top of anyone’s list,” said Chad Smith, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s chief executive.
Born in Helsinki in 1969, Mälkki has almost always led a life that revolved around music. She played multiple instruments as a child but settled on the cello, rising to become the principal cellist of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in her mid-20s. But she also studied conducting and longed to move into that field, which would have been virtually unthinkable for a woman when she was growing up.
Among the first major conductors to see Mälkki wield a baton was her compatriot Esa-Pekka Salonen, at a workshop in Stockholm. “He came to me afterward,” she recalled, “and, unbelievably, he said, ‘You look like you’re in the right place.’ So, if you get rotten tomatoes thrown to you later, you can still think, ‘Well, you know, maybe I’m doing something right.’”
In 1998, she made the leap to full-time conducting and gave up her post in Gothenburg, where the orchestra’s manager told her, “I’m sure you’re very talented; it’s just a pity that you can never become anything.”
Mälkki said the remark was so hurtful that “for years I couldn’t even tell people about it. But again, it comes back to the music, because I was not thinking of myself; I was thinking of all the things I wanted to do with the music.”
She first made a name for herself in contemporary repertory, and moved to Paris to serve from 2006 until 2013 as the director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the group founded by Pierre Boulez. (She still lives there, while also keeping an apartment near the Helsinki waterfront, where she likes to go for restorative walks.)
“Those years of all those world premieres — it was an incredible school,” she said. “My brain was overheated many times, but it was actually a really fantastic way to learn the craft, because you have to be able to read your score and organize the rehearsals so that the musicians understand what their part is in the big context.”
In 2016, Mälkki became the first female chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic. She had made guest appearances with the orchestra before, but this was a homecoming that felt, she said, “like the chance to make a contribution to Finnish music life after the fantastic education I had received.”
Her players now included old classmates from the nearby Sibelius Academy, the prestigious school that has produced other conducting luminaries, such as Salonen, as well as emerging talents like Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Klaus Mäkelä.
That same year, Mälkki was named the principal guest conductor in Los Angeles, at an orchestra she had first led in 2010. The ensemble had not had a principal guest since Michael Tilson Thomas and Simon Rattle, then rising stars, in the 1980s. But the players liked her, and she was invited back repeatedly after her debut.
At the time, the orchestra was run by Deborah Borda, who is now the New York Philharmonic’s chief executive. Mälkki had made an impression with her “very deep connection to the music,” Borda recalled recently.
“She’s very passionate, but it’s a quiet passion, a quiet charisma,” Borda added. “It’s stunning: More than an outward manifestation, this is like a flower that opens.”
During a rehearsal in Los Angeles in October, Mälkki was, as in Helsinki, amiable and assertive. Carolyn Hove, the Philharmonic’s English horn player, described Mälkki as “100 percent prepared” by the time she arrives at the podium, and that “when a conductor is really efficient, it just makes our jobs so much more fun.”
While running through Scriabin’s “Le Poème de l’Extase,” Mälkki gestured to sections of the ensemble but also let her gaze shift upward. (“Some people listen with their eyes closed,” she said, “and I guess my way of looking up is the same, that I want to free my ears.”) All the while, she kept notes in her head that she rattled off as soon as the playing stopped.
Those notes were thorough, and crucial, as the orchestra rehearsed for the American premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s “Vista,” a piece dedicated to Mälkki, who is a leading navigator of Saariaho’s idiosyncratic sound world. “I always trusted her, and she understands my music,” Saariaho said in June, shortly before Mälkki conducted the world premiere of her opera “Innocence” at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France.
Over the past two decades, their relationship has developed to the point where, Saariaho said, “we don’t need to verbalize very much.” When “L’Amour de Loin” arrived at the Metropolitan Opera in 2016, Saariaho insisted that Mälkki conduct it. (She will return to the Met to conduct Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” this spring.)
Mälkki’s specialty in living composers like Saariaho is one of the reasons she was brought to Los Angeles, Smith said. “The other part,” he added, “was just the way she thinks about programming, which is unique.” He used that October concert as an example: opening with “Vista,” followed by Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and the “Poème.”
“On paper those things are not related to each other, but there’s this remarkable thread that goes from the Kaija through the Scriabin,” Smith said. “You experience it as a listener, as a musician. It informs the way each piece is played.”
Mälkki continues to learn new works — “little by little,” she said. “Some young people want to do the Mahler right away, and we know many of those, whilst I actually waited quite a long time because I wanted to make sure that I had all my tools.”
Some composers, she added, demand maturity — like Bruckner, whose symphonies she is studying now. And, experienced in 21st-century operas by Saariaho and Unsuk Chin, she is looking back toward Wagner.
“It’s just quite extraordinary to think that there’s all this repertoire,” she said, “and I could actually just keep exploring that endlessly.”
The question is what comes next. The Helsinki Philharmonic recently announced that Mälkki would step down in summer 2023 and become the orchestra’s chief conductor emeritus. A mix of symphonic and opera appearances will follow. Where or whether a music directorship fits into that is anyone’s guess.
Borda, the chief executive of the New York Philharmonic, said that a list of candidates for her orchestra’s opening is “always going” in her head. But, she added, “you cannot rush one of these searches,” and at any rate she is more focused at the moment on the renovation of David Geffen Hall, which is set to be completed by fall 2022.
Though the orchestra has never had a female music director, Borda added that she is “not striving to demonstrate a social agenda in this appointment.”
“We are striving to make the right choice,” she said. “It’s a chemical equation. There has to be combustion, no matter what. Even if you have social goals and aims, you have to, in working with the musicians and the board, make sure that it’s the best person for the job.”
There’s also the matter of whether Mälkki would want it.
“I think this is a question that will be carefully thought about if it comes up,” she said with diplomatic care. After a pause, Mälkki continued: “There are all sorts of things to be considered, and it would be wrong to choose something just for the prestige of it. It’s ultimately a choice of artistic fulfillment. We’ll see.”