When Susanna M‹lkki came to New York in 1998 for a conduc- tor's workshop led by the Sibelius Academy, she took the opportunity to hear the New York Philharmonic perform. She had no idea that someday she would conduct the venerable orchestra, which she finally does on May 21, 22, and 23. In those intervening years M‹lkki has earned many accolades from audiences, the media, and her colleagues. As the mu- sic critic Guy Dammann wrote in a Financial Times article this spring: "Unexpectedly for someone at the top of an absurdly competitive profession, no one has a bad word to say about her."
The Sibelius Academy has given birth to many great Finnish conductors, Esa- Pekka Salonen and Osmo V‹nsk‹ among them. M‹lkki says that Finns are instilled with a profound love of music, so the plethora of famous conductors from that country should not be a surprise. However, she feels it is something of a paradox that her countrymen stand out as conductors since, she explains, "the Finnish culture doesn't have a hierarchic mentality."
M‹lkki was recently appointed chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (HPO), a post she will begin in 2016. As a youngster growing up in Helsinki, she explains, the HPO was the very first orchestra she ever heard: "It's an orches- tra that has always been in my life. It plays an essential part in the history of Finnish musical life."
Although her parents are not musical, her brothers played instruments, and M‹lkki began playing the piano as soon as she could reach the instrument. Also, she recalls, "I could sing, apparently, before I spoke." And it was the cello, which she took up at age nine, that first captured her attention. Playing in youth orchestras provided her first experiences in the orchestral world.
However, as M‹lkki explains, "Conducting always fascinated me; I always knew I would be doing it. I'm really capti- vated by orchestral scores. I want to un- derstand them, and I want to make them sound as beautiful as possible." She is pas- sionate about every work she is conducting on her first New York Philharmonic program: Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn and Piano Concerto No. 1, with Jonathan Biss as soloist, and Jonathan Harvey's Tranquil Abiding.
"Brahms is a composer I have a strong connection with, partly because of my past as a cellist," she explains. "I loved playing his chamber music, and his works in orchestra." She refers to the Variations on a Theme by Haydn as "a masterpiece, very rich with so many different characters. Each of those little variations is a gem."
She says it was a great joy to work with the pianist Jonathan Biss last year, performing the Schumann Piano Concerto with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. "He's a great musician," says M‹lkki. "And he gives out so much energy, it's extraordinary. I do my best to give it back to him."
M‹lkki felt it vitally important that the program include "music of our time," a natural point of view coming from the woman who from 2006 to 2013 served as music director of Paris's Ensemble Inter-Contemporain, a group renowned for its focus on modern music. There, M‹lkki of- ten worked with the British composer Jonathan Harvey, who passed away in 2012, admiring his "very special voice, very ex- pressive in his own way. His music says something that I think we need in this world. You can see, just in the title, Tranquil Abiding, that it's a beautiful piece. I am happy to be able to bring something to the New York audiences that they proba- bly haven't heard before." In fact, these performances mark the first time that the New York Philharmonic has performed any of Harvey's orchestral music.
This connection with contemporary music informs all the other repertoire M‹lkki conducts. "When you work with the music of our time, it gives you a very interesting insight, because we can't rely on what's happened before," she believes. "In that sense it's really the best way to learn the profession."
M‹lkki considers it a privilege to be able to communicate with living composers : a natural outgrowth of her profound reverence for all composers. "The composer and the work come first, secondary to the people who are playing the music. We are there to make the music heard."
Music journalist and media consultant Gail wein is a contributor to NPr and Voice of America and has written for The Washington Post, Musical America, Symphony Magazine, and New Music Box.