A conductor born and bred in Helsinki, Susanna Mälkki grew up to the accompaniment of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2004 she received her first invitation to conduct the orchestra of which she would become Chief Conductor in autumn 2016. Her path to the conductor’s podium passed through the cello classes of the Sibelius Academy and the Edsberg Institute in Stockholm, however, and the position of principal cellist in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. She made her conducting breakthrough in 1999, at the Helsinki Festival, and her first regular conducting appointment was as Artistic Director of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. Her Music Directorship of the celebrated Ensemble Intercontemporain (2006–2013) established her as a profound interpreter of music of the present day.
Susanna Mälkki has conducted the world’s finest orchestras. In season 2017-18 she made her debut at the Vienna State Opera season and took over as Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Musical America voted her Conductor of the Year 2017.
Known for his profound interpretations, Finnish pianist Paavali Jumppanen (b. 1974) has a repertoire that ranges from Bach to Boulez. He has, for example, recorded all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas and performed them the world over, and in 2005 he recorded the complete Boulez piano sonatas for Deutsche Grammophon. Of tonight’s concerto he says:
“Performing it is always a special experience because of its incredible emotional charge. The beginning ferociously speaks of a spiritual impasse and the piano enters with a sort of commiseration. The second theme seems to seek the assistance of a chorale to solve the impasse, and this apparently works well, for the chorale soon unfolds into glorious melodic freedom. The second movement makes a thorough investigation of the world of the chorale, and the piece returns to the theme in the finale. The end of the concerto is surely the most magnificent of any piano concerto.”
Paavali Jumppanen is Artistic Director of the PianoEspoo Festival.
Follow Paavali Jumppanen on Twitter @PianistPaavali
Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring, suite
Despite being originally called a “Ballet for Martha”, Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland (1900–1990) really has very little to do with ballet. It all began in 1942, when Copland was asked to compose a dance work on American themes. As one of his sources, he took the Shaker song Simple Gifts, but otherwise springtime and the mountains of eastern North America were more or less incidental. The association with the Appalachian landscape was a last-minute invention by the dancer Martha Graham, but it won the composer’s assent.
Appalachian Spring was a tremendous success. “The fate of pieces is really rather curious,” said Copland. “You can’t always figure out in advance what’s going to happen to them.” The suite in fact laid the stylistic foundations for American music for a long time to come. It won Copland the Pulitzer Prize for music and part of it was used for decades as the signature tune for the CBS current events programme Reports.
Appalachian Spring exists in four editions. The one on tonight’s programme is that of 1945, a suite without dance for symphony orchestra.
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1
Writing his first piano concerto proved to be an almost impossible task for the highly self-critical Johannes Brahms (1833–1897). He first set out to compose a great symphony, but he did not have enough experience of such a large-scale format so settled instead for a sonata for two pianos. Five years were to pass before, with the help of friends Joseph Joachim and Julius Otto Grimm, he finally succeeded in providing the piano with a suitable orchestral partner. The premiere in Hanover in 1859 was a complete flop, and even at the second performance, in Leipzig, the audience hissed instead of clapping.
The problem was basically that the concerto was too symphonic. It did not allow the soloist to be king of the castle. It lacked fireworks and failed to appeal to an audience that was accustomed to the easy style of Mendelssohn and expected the orchestra to be a mere foil for the heroic piano. Brahms nevertheless listened to the constructive criticism he received, admitted he was a mere beginner and continued to perform his concerto. And as we know, it would in time become an undisputed cornerstone of keyboard literature.
The second movement is thought to be a portrait of Clara Schumann, with whom Brahms is known to have been in love.
Sean Shepherd: Express Abstractionism
The marriage of art and music has been long and fruitful, and examples abound of brushstrokes transformed into notes. Less common is for a composer to be inspired by an artist’s style or method, but this is what American Sean Shepherd (b. 1979) was in Express Abstractionism, bringing five masters – Alexander Calder, Gerhard Richter, Wassily Kandinsky, Lee Krasner and Piet Mondrian – together in a single piece.
“Beyond the fact that I am immediately and consistently drawn to their work, these artists have no particular relationship to each other, other than a basic definition of working predominantly as abstract (…) artists. In fact, putting these five together means that one can find an outlier in many kinds of comparisons – but a tie that appears significant to me is the generally tragic role that the political events of the early and middle Twentieth Century played in each of their lives.
“Our cultural habit has been to take them – the ideas, the artists, the work, and the movement – very seriously, but I have found it useful to view it simply. A line is a line and blue is blue, and the brush that touches the canvas fits right in the hand – today, that to me is truth.”