L.A. Phil appoints Susanna Malkki as principal guest conductor

Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki during the U.S. premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's "Hammered Out" at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2010.

Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki during the U.S. premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Hammered Out” at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2010.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki will become only the third person ever appointed principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the orchestra is expected to announce on Wednesday.

This appointment, which will start with the 2017-18 season and will last three years, is auspicious given the two conductors who previously held the post are Simon Rattle (1981-1994), now the Berlin Philharmonic’s artistic director, the most prestigious position in classical music, and Michael Tilson Thomas (1981-1985), now music director of the San Francisco Symphony.

Malkki also was recently appointed chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. She first worked with the L.A. Phil in 2010 and has developed a strong relationship with the organization, conducting the 2015 presentation of Unsuk Chin’s opera “Alice in Wonderland.”

In her new position, Malkki will present three subscription weeks as part of Walt Disney Concert Hall’s 2017-18 season, plus other yet-to-be-announced projects.


Speaking by phone from Miami, where she is conducting a New World Symphony event, Malkki said she is still in the very early stages of thinking about the L.A. Phil programming. But her history of championing contemporary music suggests that she will reach out to notable contemporary composers.

“Contemporary music is the music of our time,” Malkki said. “If we don’t take care of the time we live in, how can we secure the future?”

She said this after acknowledging an era of great change for classical music, when many people are concerned for the future of orchestras. She cited the direction of the L.A. Phil, including programs aimed at younger people as well as multimedia performances, as “creative and smart.”

Contemporary music most certainly plays a role in this changing landscape, she said, as does the preservation of musical history.

“We want to make sure the masterpieces of the past are also being heard in the best possible way,” she added.

Malkki began her musical career as a cellist. She was principal cellist in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra from 1994 to 1998, after which she focused on conducting. In 1998 she took part in a Sibelius Academy conductor workshop at Carnegie Hall, where she learned from fellow Finnish conductors Jorma Panula and Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor laureate of the L.A. Phil.

It’s not lost on Malkki that she is among several female conductors whose profiles are rising on the global stage, but that’s not something she’d like to dwell on.

“I have my training as an instrumentalist and a musician, and when I started conducting that was the base I built on,” she said. “All that knowledge is non-gender related. It’s probably taken so long [for women to rise in the field] because the conductor’s position is one of leadership. It’s a wonderful thing that the situation is changing, but ideally we can just focus on what is essential, which is music itself.”

Although this might be true, the sight of Malkki gripping a conductor’s baton in L.A. will likely summon more reactions like this one written in 2013 by Ellen McSweeney for

“I have been a musician for twenty years, and before Tuesday night, I had never seen a woman conduct a great orchestra. And unless you count the string teachers in my public schools, I’ve never worked with a woman conductor myself.

“So I suppose it makes sense that every time Malkki presided over a roaring crescendo during Tuesday night’s Chicago Symphony concert, I felt a rush of unexpected emotion. Because, for all my years of playing, the sound of an orchestral crescendo has been associated with the sight of a man’s body on the podium. For my entire life, the sounds of timpani and brass seemed to be born exclusively from the waving of a man’s arms. But I now have living proof that this isn’t the case. And it matters.”

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