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.
Bernard Herrmann: Scène d’Amour from the movie Vertigo
Known primarily as a film composer, Bernard Herrmann (1911–1975) always lamented the fact that no one was interested in his other music, which included a symphony, an opera and a string quartet. But his ability to create powerful moods on screen by simple means was unsurpassed, as proved by his scores for films by Hitchcock. Psycho, for example, relies solely on a string orchestra, while North by Northwest makes colourful use of a full orchestra.
Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is considered one of his very best. Music plays such a leading role in the film that critic Alex Ross described it as “a symphony for film and orchestra”. The Scène d’Amour (Love Scene) from this classic underlines the police detective’s obsessive love for the hauntingly beautiful Madeleine by incorporating references to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
Paul Hindemith: Der Schwanendreher
Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) could turn his hand to a host of instruments, but above all the viola. One of his most popular works is the Viola Concerto of 1935. Titled Der Schwanendreher (‘The Swan Turner’), it was premiered in Amsterdam that year with Hindemith himself as the soloist.
Der Schwanendreher is a fantasy concerto on medieval German folk tunes* and has a programme: A minstrel comes to a jolly gathering and shares what he has brought from afar: serious and light-hearted songs, and finally a dance. With his inspiration and skill he embroiders on the melodies like a true musician, experimenting and improvising. In the Middle Ages, a Schwanendreher (the subject of one of the songs) was a chef’s apprentice who turned the swan as it roasted.
*Between mountain and deep valley, Shed your leaves, little linden-tree, The cuckoo sat on the fence, and Are you not the swan turner?
Richard Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
In 1870, Richard Wagner (1813–1883) married Franz Liszt’s daughter Cosima and composed a piece for her birthday that was first performed on Christmas Day on the steps of their home at Tribschen in Switzerland. Her birthday was actually the day before, but she preferred to celebrate it one day later. “As I awoke, my ear caught a sound that swelled fuller and fuller,” she wrote in her diary. “No longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming: music was sounding, and such music! When it died away, Richard came into my room with the children and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem. I was in tears, but so were all the rest of the household. Richard had positioned his band on the staircase, and thus was our Tribschen consecrated forever.” Short of cash, Wagner later sold what was to have been the private idyll named after their son Siegfried.
Joan Tower: Made in America
Joan Tower (b. 1938) composed Made in America for small orchestra in 2004, basing it on the patriotic song America the Beautiful. “The beauty of the song is,” she says, “undeniable and I loved working with it as a musical idea. One can never take for granted, however, the strength of a musical idea — as Beethoven (one of my strongest influences) knew so well. This theme is challenged by other more aggressive and dissonant ideas that keep interrupting, unsettling it, but America the Beautiful keeps resurfacing in different guises (some small and tender, others big and magnanimous), as if to say, ‘I'm still here, ever changing, but holding my own.’ A musical struggle is heard throughout the work. Perhaps it was my unconscious reacting to the challenge of how do we keep America beautiful.”