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.
Born in Voronezh in South-western Russia in 1979, Kirill Gerstein has been in love with the piano for as long as he can remember. He was also equally attracted to jazz, and at the age of 14 was accepted – the youngest pupil ever – to study jazz piano at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA. In summer he studied classical music at Tanglewood. The time came when, “Conceptually, I felt I had to make a life decision, and the idea of roaming through the minds and creations of people like Bach, like Beethoven, like Schubert and Rachmaninoff, was simply a bigger draw for me,” he said in an interview in 2014. “I really believe that nobody can practise both art forms on the same high level, so to speak. I must point out that this was a decision I made at the age of 16, and it was a radical one.” Having made his choice, he enrolled as a pupil of his childhood idol Dmitri Bashkirov in Madrid and of Ferenc Rados in Budapest. His breakthrough came in 2001 with first prize in the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, and in 2010 he became the sixth recipient of the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award.
Gerstein has, however, never abandoned jazz, and his Gershwin disc released early this year, his sense of rhythm and adherence to the composer’s original style, sent the critics into ecstasy.
Charles Ives: Three Places in New England
“Prizes are for boys, and I’m all grown up,” said Charles Ives (1874–1954) on declining to accept the Pulitzer for his third symphony. An American composer ahead of his times, he was already cultivating the polyrhythms, aleatory and microtonality nowadays in fashion but won recognition only late in life. Three Places in New England is a good example of his technique of borrowing from familiar folk songs and themes – in such profusion that the result might well be called organised chaos.
Three Places in New England is Ives’s tribute to his native region and US war heroes. The first movement is at the war memorial in Boston commemorating the bloody assault on Fort Wagner in 1863. The second takes place at Putnam’s Camp in California, where bands are playing, and the third gazes at the Housatonic River, in the area where Ives spent his honeymoon. He later arranged the melody in a setting of a poem by Robert Underwood, heard tonight in a version for choir and orchestra.
Arnold Schönberg: Piano Concerto, Op. 42
If ever there was a composer who changed the course of Western music, it was Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951). His early works were still in the Late Romantic style, but as the new century dawned, he gradually faded out the whole concept of tonality. With his two pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern, he launched the systematic use of all 12 tones in the scale so that works could no longer be said to be in a specific key. He did not, however, abandon all the Romantic genres. The sketches for each of the four movements in his Piano Concerto bear programmatic, autobiographical headings: “Life was so easy.” “Suddenly hatred broke out.” “A grave situation was created.” “But life goes on.” These may well reflect the Jewish composer’s flight from Hitler’s regime to America, but he later abandoned them, claiming that the music should speak for itself.
The Piano Concerto, Op. 42 of 1942 premiered at a concert by the NBC, is a model example of 12-tone technique. It is based on a ‘row’ incorporating all 12 notes in the scale that is first presented by the piano and winds its way through the concerto from beginning to end; the result sounds more ‘tonal’ than one might expect. The movements are performed without a break.
Jean Sibelius: The Dryad & Dance Intermezzo
The Dryad (1910), sometimes described as “a fascinating image of nature”, and the Dance Intermezzo are two exquisite yet lesser-known gems by Jean Sibelius (1865–1957). He was inspired to write the first while out skiing in February. Rather than providing a portrait of the tree spirit familiar from Greek mythology, it paints the atmosphere in delicate shades and gradually shifting timbres and reflects Sibelius’s liking for early 20th-century music and especially the pastel-shade, symbolist leanings of Debussy. In this respect it is remotely akin to Pelléas and Mélisande, the fourth symphony and The Bard composed at around the same time.
The Dance Intermezzo of 1904 was originally intended as part of some music for the stage but later published as an independent work to be paired with The Dryad. It shows Sibelius in an unusually light, almost carefree vein.
George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Hearing that someone had forgotten to tell him he had been commissioned to write something for a concert to be held in five week’s time on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, George Gershwin (1898–1937) immediately hit on the idea of a virtuoso piece for piano and orchestra. It occurred to him as he sat on a train bearing him to Boston that its relentless pounding somehow symbolised the mad US metropolises, America’s boundless energy, ethnic mix and musical kaleidoscope. He first thought of calling his piece American Rhapsody but later changed the title to Rhapsody in Blue after the painting Arrangement in Grey and Black by James McNeill Whistler.
Many in the audience – among them Fritz Kreisler, John Philip Sousa, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Leopold Stokowski – were electrified by the music, but some dismissed it as sentimental and hackneyed in its melodies and harmonies. This was probably because Gershwin had not had time to polish it and improvised most of the piano part. He would later perform the finished version – a mixture of ragtime, Cuban rhythms, Charleston and of course jazz – over 100 times.