Susanna Mälkki is Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Before studying conducting at the Sibelius Academy, she was successful cellist, playing as co-principal for the Gothenburg Symphony between 1995-1998.
She is guest conducting at the highest level worldwide, with orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, Berliner Philharmoniker, London Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, The Cleveland, Chicago Symphony and Swedish Radio Symphony orchestras among many others. In June 2010 Mälkki was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in London and in 2011 was awarded the Pro Finlandia Medal of the Order of the Lion of Finland, one of Finland’s highest honours. In January 2016 she was also made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in France.
Thank you for agreeing to talk with me. You chose to speak about The Rite of Spring – is it your favourite Stravinsky piece?
Oh well, yes it is definitely one of them – if not the one. It’s so brilliant. Of the big ballets, I’ve always thought Petrushka is also firmly on the top, but I have to confess that The Rite of Spring is really something else.
Sometimes I forget how great The Rite is, and then return to it after a break and I’m completely bowled over again!
Exactly, that’s the incredible thing about it – it was written more than a hundred years ago but we’re still blown away by it…. and actually more every time, because when you know it better and better you also realise its greatness more deeply.
Martyn Brabbins (Music Director of English National Opera) said that with The Rite of Spring, ‘Stravinsky single-handedly transformed the role and function of the conductor’ (2003:262). Do you agree with that, or do you think that other pieces by Stravinsky are equally challenging?
I think it’s correct. However today, when orchestras already know The Rite of Spring they can (sort of) play it while not being completely dependent on the conductor – now it’s in the repertory. The rhythms are not a difficulty today for orchestras that are used to playing this kind of music. But I think it still needs a good performance, and it needs a very clear visionary reading. At the time it was considered one of the most difficult pieces on Earth, so obviously then it did challenge conductors, quite radically.
So you don’t think it overshadows pieces like Petrushka or Les Noces? (See 1) Some conductors think he stretches them even more in those pieces, but because there wasn’t a riot at those premieres we don’t think they had an impact…
(laughs) Well I actually haven’t conducted Les Noces so I don’t know, but in my opinion there is more contrast in The Rite of Spring, musically. I’ve conducted Petrushka and The Rite of Spring about the same number of times. They are both challenging and demand virtuosity to make the piece shine. Petrushka has different kinds of challenges, and you very rarely hear a performance that is really respecting all the nuances. It’s very often just moving forward like a train when the score is actually much more subtle and rich than that. The Rite of Spring, on the other hand, is always impressive on some level because of all of these different characters. So if you paint with a large brush it also works. I think Petrushka is like fine clockwork, whereas that kind of music is less present in The Rite of Spring – that is like an explosion!
That’s really interesting that you mentioned painting with a ‘large brush’. What do you mean by that, musically?
Well, I meant that some of the most extraordinary moments in The Rite are those build-ups when he’s adding layer by layer. There are these incredible forces, sonic forces somehow, which are built on top of each other. And then there is this constant movement, and volcanic eruptions or tsunamis. In a way, in order to recreate the feeling of shock today, it demands a great ability to build up the feeling of expectation because we already know what comes next. Also, people are much more used to ’loud’ music now, for better or worse. We don’t want the microwave heated version of it, we want the real thing! So in that way it’s more challenging to do it really, really well today. But The Rite Of Spring also has this primitive side – we need to smell the earth in it, and I think this sort of large scale thinking is really necessary whilst respecting all the incredible details. It’s so rich and it’s so compact – there’s not one bar too little or too much, it’s really extraordinary.
Yes it really is! As you were just saying, it’s this incredibly exciting, dangerous piece and you need an ability to build up to those huge climaxes. What other things do you have to do in preparation or rehearsals to make sure it sounds that explosive and in ‘technicolour’?
Yes ‘technicolour’, indeed. Well it’s interesting because it has become a repertory piece so now of course every bassoon player in the world wants to play the solo at the beginning. A hundred years ago it was a scary moment they may have thought they just needed to survive and overcome. But now the palette of what conductors can do with it has also extended because the players are fascinated by the challenges, or opportunities, in fact, of the piece. The path I have chosen is to really trust in the piece, and also the hypnotic ritualistic elements of it – so many times we search for the excitement with quick tempi. Of course, Stravinsky put in metronome markings (some of them he changed) but it’s very, very interesting to actually check precisely what he wrote. Many people consider that, for example, the ending is much too slow and they want to take it faster than Stravinsky indicated. But I think it’s important to ask the question ‘why this tempo?’
What was the character he was looking for? If he indicated a tempo which is not extremely quick, there must be some kind of weight he wanted behind it. I also think, since we spoke about Petrushka as well, that these tempo nuances are very interesting in Petrushka. There’s a certain pace that stays more or less the same, but if you look really carefully, all the motifs have a slightly different tempo. That means that he wanted them to be slightly different in character, and in my work when I study Le Sacre I try to be careful not to find solutions that would be the easy way out.
In terms of the tempi and the metronome markings, I imagine some of that is to do with the choreography when it was first staged.
Do you think about the choreography when you conduct this in a concert?
Yes, I do think about the choreography – the music is very visual and I think about the primitive expression of the piece, the way of dancing which was also new for example. There is a strong presence of a pulsation that is not constant but changing, it really creates movement. Some kinds of music are very visual to me and that is definitely the case with this piece. Russian, folkloristic pictures come into my head, there is music of plenty of things simultaneously, and there are some musical gestures where I can really see the wild movements. But also I think these static passages are hypnotic, like the calm before the storm. When you imagine a slow movement into those they make perfect sense. So the answer is yes.
In Dialogues and a Diary Stravinsky criticised Boulez’s 1963 recording: ‘The bassoon is “saxophone-like and vibrato-shiny”’ (Stravinsky and Craft 1968:82). It is thought that the reason he allocated the opening to the bassoon (rather than the oboe or clarinet) is because he wanted that sense of strain. You’ve conducted The Rite with the San Francisco Symphony haven’t you?
Yes, that’s right.
Well Michael Tilson-Thomas dedicated a whole programme on The Rite in his Keeping Score series (See 2) His felt that Stravinsky wanted to mimic the cracks in a folk singer’s voice – he wanted that kind of unsophisticated, uncultivated sound. But obviously they don’t struggle now…
Yes, so they have the ease of a young Pavarotti rather than a folk singer!
Yes exactly! How do you work with that? What kind of sound do you try and get from the bassoonist?
Well, it’s a relevant question. I think with orchestras in general, I respect the personality of each one. Of course, it is a virtuoso piece, so I’m happy to have amazing sound – I have nothing against that. However, what I think is very important to remember is that it’s not a show piece, it is actually telling a story which is terrifying. This applies to many works that are tragic when they become show pieces – I can’t stand it if I go to a concert and people are cheering while listening to a tragic piece. The message is lost but continues to sell well, so to speak. So what I think is very important, regardless of the sound, is the urgency of it. If you think about the long solo with the alto flute [in the ‘Augurs of Spring’], what is it trying to indicate? There is some oriental colour in it, but it’s important to try and find a meaning for it. You can discuss it with the musician who plays the solo – you can always find something that is interesting. It’s like acting – you can read the text in many different ways. You still have exactly the same words and I think the story has to be present, but there is also personality of the musician and his/her instrument.
I also think that with a piece like this it is very important to be present in the moment, that things are not on autopilot. It’s a staged work. Stravinsky’s so incredibly gifted and clever with this, he has a fantastic theatrical instinct. I love the way he stops everything suddenly, or when things just dry out. For example, if you think of the very end of Part I, there is this stillness and suddenly there is a very quick movement that comes afterwards. When I just think of that place in the music I get goose bumps because it is so powerful! I think it is very important in the performance to play with those silences as well.
Oh I see. So you really read the atmosphere in those situations?
That’s what I want to do, if there is a moment of suspension, or if there is a moment where, scenically, I imagine that the characters are on stand-by for something to happen and there’s fear in the air but nothing is moving. We should be able to feel the fear, of course, but this is now extra-musical and these things are so metaphysical that it’s always a bit dangerous to speak about them. But I think the best works of art can open these doors of imagination and we have to try to create an experience where the listeners can see the drama even if it’s not actually staged.
Yes, the audience can sense that extra something without knowing what it is.
Yes, that’s right.
Mark Wigglesworth said something interesting when he spoke to me about Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’. He said he usually knows what narrative he feels is running through the piece but he won’t communicate that to the orchestra. It’s partly because he would feel a bit self-conscious, but because it also limits everybody else’s interpretation as well. (See 3)
Yeah, I agree with that. If the undercurrent is strong enough it will be sensed. It’s a sort of frequency which people pick up on.
Yes, people pick up on more than you think, don’t they?
Oh, they do!
It’s like tasting someone’s cooking that seems to have that extra secret ingredient. You know it’s there, but you don’t really know what’s been added.
That’s really exciting that you work with the silences in that way.
Yeah, it’s interesting and there are so many of those silences in a score like this. It’s so well written that there are more options than you think. I think your parallel with cooking is perfect, because you can add a little touch of something and in a score like this you can just balance the sound – perhaps you want to have the percussion just a little bit softer here, or you want that particular note of the trombone a little bit louder so the harmony becomes more cutting. Those are, of course, our secret tricks, but the principle or the starting point has to be that you want to have a certain sound here and then you just wonder how you can get it! Depending on the orchestras I work with, it will be slightly different each time. San Francisco has a splendid sound – it’s so full of the Californian sun. It’s a different kind of brilliance than what you would get somewhere in the North. I’m going to do this in Helsinki next season and I am so looking forward to it, but the sound of the orchestra will be different. However, I think there will also be elements that are recognisable from my other performances with the piece.
Do you conduct it regularly?
Now, more and more often. I actually haven’t done that many performances, because it demands such a big orchestra. It’s a piece you can propose but you don’t get to do very often in the beginning. I also want to preserve the magic of it by not doing it too often.
Ah, yes. Some conductors have performed it from memory (e.g. Rattle and Bernstein among others). Do you ever do that? Would you ever do that?!
I don’t feel a need for it actually. I’m not sure if it necessarily proves anything to do it from memory. This is another subject altogether, but what is more important – the result we hear or the performance for the eyes?
Yes. I think if I saw a conductor without a score with this piece I would feel nervous.
Yes. I mean, even the greatest conductors are humans. I don’t think they are necessarily doing it perfectly, even if they’ve done it many times. I respect anyone who can do a piece like this from memory, but you can on the other hand spontaneously be inspired by something new in the moment of performance when you have the music in front of you. I know the score and I probably would be able to do it, but I don’t feel it’s a merit that I need to get. I really don’t feel like that.
Yeah, I can understand that, it’s not really proving anything, is it?
Well it’s proving that you have a good memory, but you can still be a very boring musician!
I’ve seen one video of Bernstein when he was conducting The Rite Of Spring from memory and it was incredible. It was quite early in his career. But what I remember about it is that it’s an incredibly vital performance, not that he was doing it by heart. I also know somebody very famous that does it from memory, and there are little problems. No names.
No, of course. Obviously The Rite of Spring uses a huge orchestra, especially in comparison with previous ballets, but it is also turned upside down, in that the woodwinds and the brass take centre stage. Does that make any difference to your relationship with the orchestra?
I think it changes, but it changes for everybody. It changes for the winds, for the strings, and it changes for me. But I’m sure this was the effect that Stravinsky wanted. The sound is so much more direct than it would be with the soft and thick string texture. But of course he’s using the strings remarkably in the piece in any case. Maybe this was something that appeared more radical at the time, especially as he also wrote Symphonies of Wind Instruments after that. In those days, strings tended to be so used to having melodies and the main role. For example, if you do Sibelius symphonies where the role of the strings is also very different (especially in the later symphonies) psychologically it’s different for many players, and it’s sometimes interesting to observe, if the music is new to them.
And I imagine as Stravinsky stretches the technique of the instrumentalist, it in turn stretches your understanding of the instruments?
It does, it does. Of course, the strings have to fight hard in the loud moments because the winds are so strong, but in some of those very intimate moments he’s using the strings with a great finesse. So they have their moments. There’s also this element of the sound of the ‘mass’. When the strings enter in Le Sacre it’s clearly not portraying individuals but a big group that is joining. So that can also be seen a metaphor. And more generally speaking, in a piece like this, regardless of what kind of instrument you play, everyone has to be at their best.
Stravinsky quite famously gave the six Charles Eliot Norton lectures. (See 4)
Oh yes, of course.
Yes, where he outlines his anti-interpretation performance preferences (although he did, less famously renounce these beliefs in later life). I was wondering whether his performance preferences concern you at all?
Well, of course, it’s very interesting. I think there are two ways to approach this question.
It’s the same question I ask myself when I’m performing any of Stravinsky’s neo-classical pieces. He’s very aware of the traditions he’s working with, but if you think of Pergolesi [or what was supposed to be Pergolesi, reworked in the Pulcinella Suite] he’s adding glissandos in there and not by accident – he’s fully aware of what he’s doing. So there’s a double standard there regarding authenticity.
What a good point! I hadn’t thought of it in that way.
…and of course today we have a totally different approach because since his time there has been the arrival of early music authenticity. So there is more than a double layer. Also, almost all of his music is so refined, that for me it would be unthinkable not to phrase it. Even in The Rite Of Spring there are phrases, obviously. Having said that, of course, these things are always a matter of taste. Personally, I’ve always thought that he said there’s no emotion in his music because he didn’t want to talk
about it. It doesn’t mean that it wasn’t there – I just think he wanted to avoid the subject.
Yes, actually I read that Stravinsky sat next to Samuel Dushkin’s wife when he performed his Violin Concerto. She noticed that during the second aria he was crying. When she asked him what was the matter, and he said that writing the second aria was the only way he could think of to apologise to his first wife. (See 5)
Well personally, I would want more than an aria considering the way he treated her… but for me that changes everything!
Well my reaction is actually that it’s very touching, but it doesn’t surprise me at all. I think the second aria of the concerto is incredibly moving. Thank you for telling me that – it means that my instinct about it has been right all along.
Yes, it’s interesting. So to just finish on that topic, you don’t feel
restricted at all by Stravinsky’s scores?
Restricted? No, definitely not, because there’s so much to be inspired by. I think it’s the opposite, if anything. It’s a gold mine and an incredible playing field, and I mean that in the most respectful way possible. There are all of these possibilities and little hints you have to get. Intimidated? Yes, because I am sure I’ll never do it well enough. But that also goes for Beethoven and Wagner etc., so in that case we might as well just stop trying altogether! From the little film clips that I’ve seen of Stravinsky it was obvious that he had a lot of humour, and he was also a man of his time. I think this reply of saying ‘no, no, there’s no emotion at all’ – well my interpretation of all of that is that he was actually man of deep emotions. It’s like we were talking about picking up the frequency, you know?
Yes, it was hidden beneath the surface.
It was interesting when I was doing The Soldiers Tale with the Ensemble InterContemporain. They had been playing with Boulez, of course, for many years. There are these moments when the music is actually quite entertaining. I instinctively thought ‘this is swing’ because of this rhythm. Boulez had apparently insisted to play it exactly as its written so consequently it doesn’t have that relaxed jazzy feeling. I think that this is a matter of interpretation. I would love to know what Stravinsky really thought, but my instinct goes directly to the swing.
Some conductors have commented that the notation The Rite of Spring is needlessly complex in areas. The 11/4 leading into ‘The Glorification of the Chosen One’ is a favourite example discussed in conducting books. What do you do there?
We just do eleven beats.
Yes, of course! Because everybody needs to count anyway. Every player is counting all those beats. And I’m convinced that as ’just eleven beats’ they are played differently than they would be if they were in groups of 4 and 3. Another example of genius writing. It doesn’t matter really.
Yes, exactly. More importantly, what about the ‘Sacrificial Dance’? I ask because there have been suggestions of re-barring by various conductors/authors. (See 6) I’ve sent you a link for Bernstein’s annotated score of The Rite of Spring that’s available in the New York Philharmonic digital archive (See 7) (I know you’ve also conducted that orchestra). Bernstein’s teacher, Koussevitsky, struggled to learn the ‘Sacrificial Dance’ so his friend Slonimsky re-barred it for him. Bernstein continued to use this in his own annotated scores.
Ah yes, I can see it.
What do you think of that?
Hmm, no comment!
I would like to know what Stravinsky would have thought of that, but he would have said something sarcastic and polite. It’s just not what he wrote.
Indeed, one of my conductor friends said that this makes it ‘safe and boring’. The whole point is that it’s meant to sound terrifying and dangerous.
Yes, it’s very interesting, I think this is an answer to your very first question – about Stravinsky transforming the role of the conductor. This is a piece of evidence – it took time but now there’s a new generation of conductors that would never do this anymore. There’s been a transition.
So you don’t ever re-bar any sections then?
In Stravinsky? No. Sometimes in modern pieces, yes, if you have a microscopic bar then you can just add it to the end of the previous one, but in a piece like this? No, I would never do it.
So what are the most difficult moments of the piece for you?
I think there are so many crucial moments, I can’t pick just one! When you’re conducting the orchestra you have to know when to be absolutely reliable in that split second – when it’s actually happening. So you have to have 100% (or even more!) focus. People always talk about precision. I mean, it’s not a virtue in itself, but in a piece like this it absolutely is, and when one of those moments approaches you know that it has to be completely clear. Of course, the energy level is so high that I think to make it comfortable and safe would be so unfair to the piece. But to come up to this electric level of energy is something that ideally we build up musically. It’s not meant to be a work out, but you have to be able to create the tension, I think it’s the overall challenge of the piece – it’s not about beating a certain couple of bars RIGHT, even if there are those moments. It’s about the drama. People can say ‘it was more exciting with such and such conductor’ but I think that’s misunderstanding and limiting the piece. It’s a continuum of events, and it has to have its inner logic.
Lastly, what do you think goes well with The Rite of Spring in a concert?
Ah, that’s a difficult question because there are so many reasons for programming it. I think a piece like this could even stand alone, it’s so incredible. OK its just over thirty minutes long, but it would definitely be worth standing alone for itself in terms of musical information. From the first time you hear it, and for the rest of your life, you will be in awe of this piece.
Yes, it depends on so many factors, I suppose.
It does. I wouldn’t put it together with something massive. For me it can only serve as the main work.
Yes, the main attraction.
Yeah, it overshadows anything else in the programme anyway. It’s so inspiring and perfect, incredible. What can I say? I’ve done quite a lot of contemporary music also over the years, but every time this one comes around it’s like the ‘King of all Modern Pieces’…
Notes from the podium
1 In his book Themes and Conclusions Stravinsky reviewed three Rite of Spring recordings (one being his own). At the end he says ‘can anyone wonder why I wrote conductor-proof (even mechanical) pieces, as in Les Noces?’ (1972:241).
2 Kennard, D. and Saffa, J. (2006) Keeping Score, revolutions in music; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring [DVD]
3 ‘What I tend to believe is that if I have quite a strong story in my mind about what
the symphony is, if I share that with other people I become quite self-conscious about
it – it limits it for them in a way. I hope that the narrative I’ve taken from the
symphony is something that helps me channel the direction in which I’m going. The specificity of that helps me but it’s a specificity that is not necessarily appropriate to share with the orchestra. I think it should be kept to myself’. See Issue 3 Notes from the Podium.
4 Given in the academic year 1939-40, published in Stravinsky, I. Poetics of Music in
the Form of Six Lessons (Vintage Books, New York, 1960).
5 Dushkin’s wife noticed during a performance her husband gave of the violin
concerto that the composer wept. ‘When she asked him about this uncharacteristically
effusive reaction, Stravinsky confessed that he had written the aria for Catherine, his
long suffering wife. It was, he said, ‘the only way I could think of to apologise’ – a
reference to his decade-old, not-so-secret extra -marital relationship with Vera
Sudeikina’ (Joseph 2002:343).
6 For example Grosbayne states that they ‘easily could and should have been written in larger units’ (1973:117). His recommendation is that at R149 the conductor can combine bars to make the music more manageable. He suggests a combination of bars 1 and 2 (thus creating a bar of five rather than three plus two), bars 3 and 4 (creating a bar of four instead of two plus two) and so on throughout the section (117-18).