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With every flick of her baton, conductor Susanna Mälkki chips at classical's glass ceiling

With every flick of her baton, conductor Susanna Mälkki chips at classical's glass ceiling
Susanna Mälkki is the principal guest conductor at the L.A. Phil and chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic. (Chris Lee)

When it comes to making music, gender should be irrelevant.

And yet, in nearly every article about Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki, her gender is discussed — or at least noted.

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Last week in a glowing review of her Jan. 11 appearance with the New York Philharmonic, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini commented that seeing two women appearing together as concerto soloist and conductor was a "vanishingly rare sight at the Philharmonic."

Mälkki, after all, is still an anomaly in her profession: A 2016 study by the League of American Orchestras found that more than 90% of professional symphony orchestra music directors are male, a statistic that did not budge a single percentage point from the league's 2006 findings.

This weekend — the same weekend as the Women's March — Mälkki makes her third appearance of the 2017-18 season as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's principal guest conductor, and classical music's thickest, most stubborn glass ceiling will crack open a little bit wider.

Mälkki is one of four women conducting the L.A. Phil this season. Throughout most of her career, she has tended to redirect conversations away from gender and toward the music she is passionate about bringing to life.

"I've always tried to stay neutral on the subject," she told the Chicago Tribune's John von Rhein in 2016. "I have just tried all along to make music as good as possible and let others think what they may, since I can't control that anyway."

But discussions about gender and the workplace have evolved during the last year. This week, sitting on a rooftop patio in downtown L.A., Mälkki is more open and interested in discussing the topic.

"Women have been conducting for decades," she says. "They just haven't been welcome. It's as simple as that."

Mälkki notes that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when her profession was growing in prestige, women did not even have the right to vote.

"If you did not have a say about your own life," she says, "how could you imagine that you could be a boss of an orchestra?" She adds that "things change gradually" and "sometimes society is just not ready for changes."

But she lights up when she talks about Oprah Winfrey's recent Golden Globes speech about empowering women. "Time is up!" she says.

"When I talk with young women in my field, I always tell them gender is irrelevant," Susanna Mälkki says. "That is my very firm belief."
"When I talk with young women in my field, I always tell them gender is irrelevant," Susanna Mälkki says. "That is my very firm belief." (Simon Fowler)

Like so many maestros, Mälkki, 48, began her career not on the podium but in the orchestra. The daughter of a scientist and an art teacher, she grew up in Helsinki and had an early affinity for music.

"We had a piano in the house," she recalls, "and I was plunking it as soon as I could reach."

She studied violin before eventually settling on the cello. Inspiring teachers, "life-changing concerts" and an innate sense that music was her calling led Mälkki to music school and eventually a position as principal cellist at the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden.

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But as soon as she stepped in front of an orchestra, Mälkki sensed that the podium was where she belonged. She breaks into a smile when she recalls the first time she tried her hand at conducting. It was in music school in Stockholm in her early 20s.

"I was standing there with a little group of musicians," she says. "I had just very basic skills. But I felt that I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do. Somehow, I didn't question myself in that moment."

Around that time, Mälkki met Esa-Pekka Salonen, then the music director of the Swedish Radio Symphony. "I still recall the many, many clever things he said."

While working as a cellist with the Gothenburg symphony, Mälkki enrolled in conducting courses at the Sibelius Academy, where Salonen and other famous Finnish conductors also began their careers.

She describes her transition from cellist to conductor as gradual, natural and almost inevitable.

"I didn't resist it either," she says, "because I realized that conducting was very fulfilling and suited the way I had always thought of music — structurally, polyphonically — and I was eager to try my wings."

Mälkki became the conductor of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris in 2006. She made a name for herself internationally as an insightful interpreter of new music (and still lives in Paris today).

If you did not have a say about your own life, how could you imagine that you could be a boss of an orchestra?


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Composers praise Mälkki for her ability to understand and distill the essential materials in their scores and communicate their ideas clearly through an orchestra to an audience.

She says she takes the same approach when interpreting standards of the classical repertoire, mining scores for clues from the great composers, preparing efficiently and effectively with musicians on tight rehearsal schedules and producing riveting live performances.

The L.A. Phil's chief operating officer, Chad Smith, points to many of those qualities when describing why the orchestra hired Mälkki as principal guest conductor, a position no one has held since Simon Rattle and Michael Tilson Thomas in the 1980s.

"It's a reflection of [Music Director] Gustavo Dudamel's real interest in making sure that the L.A. Philharmonic is an incredibly welcoming environment to people from across many different artistic and cultural backgrounds," Smith says.

Like the other programs Mälkki has conducted in L.A., this weekend's concerts juxtapose new music (the U.S. premiere of German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, "En Forme de Pas de Trios") with familiar works by Bach (Fuga [Ricercata] from "The Musical Offering") and Strauss ("An Alpine Symphony").

The Zimmermann concerto is intended to be accompanied by dance. This weekend, Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen is presenting the world premiere of new choreography that will be performed onstage alongside the orchestra.

It's another perk of working with the L.A. Phil, Mälkki says: "It's a group that is open to anything, and they can really do anything, which is a great luxury."

As she soaks up the winter sun and chats about rehearsal techniques, hall acoustics and repertoire choices, Mällki comes across as a someone hitting her stride. In 2016, she became the chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, an appointment she describes as "very much a homecoming." Change is making her hopeful about the future of her profession.

"When I talk with young women in my field," she says, "I always tell them gender is irrelevant. That is my very firm belief. At the same time, if what I'm doing can encourage others, which I think it does for many because they have told me, then that is great."

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

L.A. Phil with Susanna Mälkki conducting

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

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When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $20-$188

Info: (323) 850-2000, www.laphil.com

See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.

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