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A Striking Aesthetic Freedom

Interview with Susanna Mälkki

By Sarah Barbedette 13 February 2017

© Simon Fowler

A Striking Aesthetic Freedom

Principal conductor of the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra, Susanna Mälkki is particularly keen to promote the contemporary repertoire. She will be at the Palais Garnier to direct the world premier of Trompe-la-mort by Luca Francesconi and, in concert, the French premier of Pascal Dusapin’s Concerto for cello, Outscape.    

In 2011, you conducted Quartett by Luca Francesconi at La Scala Milan. When did you first meet him?

Susanna Mälkki :  I knew Luca Francesconi’s music before arriving in Paris, but it was when I came to conduct the Ensemble Intercontemporain that I had the opportunity to meet and work with him. If I was drawn very early on towards Luca’s music, it is because it possesses exceptional expressivity and an aesthetic freedom that is particularly remarkable in the contemporary landscape. Indeed, I chose to devote my very first recordings to Francesconi and Mantovani – and as luck would have it, it was on account of those two composers that I came here to conduct the Paris Opera!
Répétition de Trompe-la-mort avec Susanna Mälkki et Luca Francesconi
Répétition de Trompe-la-mort avec Susanna Mälkki et Luca Francesconi © Elena Bauer / OnP

Trompe-la-mort is the second of Luca Francesconi’s operas that you have conducted. On first looking at the score, what struck you particularly about it?

S.M.:  For Quartett – as for Trompe-la-mort -, Luca chose to write the libretto himself; this probably explains why the composition is in itself a reading of the text. For Quartett, he drew on Heiner Müller's reading of Les Liaisons dangereuses adding a supplementary layer to the existing text that filled with great pertinence the gaps left by Heiner Müller. In the same way, it seems to me that, with Balzac, he was working on a series of key moments, whilst perfectly respecting the thread of the narrative. It is a fascinating reading because it expresses itself at one and the same time in the choice of words, through the writing of the libretto and in the music which, in several places, takes over the narrative in purely orchestral passages. The extent of the developments, the proportions, the amplitude he chooses to accord, or not, to different passages, the power of the contrasts: everything works together to serve what is a particularly dramatic reading of the work. This is a characteristic feature of his writing and it is for that reason that I would say that he is a veritable composer for the theatre. His theatrical perspective is equally manifest in the way he creates characters musically and thus, in a sense, recreates them. Balzac perfectly described the characters of La Comédie humaine with a multitude of details, and yet, in the musical identity that he gives them, Luca manages to offer us characters that are different whilst still being themselves. In places, this reading denotes real tenderness for the characters, and at those moments when they might seem lost or manipulated, he reminds us of their true nature. With good opera composers, there is a subtext: the orchestra already knows what the characters are still unaware of. It constitutes a sort of subconscious. This is the case in Trompe-la-mort. Furthermore, what Balzac describes both existed and continues to exist. Luca placed this continuity at the heart of his writing: he not only perceived it but he also set it to music.

The creative process is one you are familiar with: you spent several years at the head of the Ensemble Intercontemporain; you have worked with numerous 21st century composers and premiered a number of their works. Where would you place Luca Francesconi’s music within this contemporary landscape?

S.M.:  Luca is a very interesting composer, notably because his career has been very varied, his approach to the conception of musical works is cinematic, theatrical or pictorial in turn and because he has always preserved a very great freedom of musical thought. I would say that he is also above all else an Italian composer in that he is really at home in theatre and opera: he has an extremely powerful sense of drama and dramaturgy. What I like is that his music defies aesthetic definition. He is not afraid to be expressive, not afraid to be romantic and is not confined by his own period. He has, so to speak, several languages, several strings to his bow and I think this is exactly what is needed for this work.
Susanna Mälkki en répétition
Susanna Mälkki en répétition © Elena Bauer / OnP

On 6th April you are conducting the French premier of Outscape, Pascal Dusapin’s second cello concerto. According to the composer, the title evokes “the way, or the opportunity to escape, to invent one’s own way forward”. How do the two works that you have chosen to add to the programme fit in around the cello concerto?

S.M.:  Pascal Dusapin is a very important figure in the contemporary music scene and his work, marked as it is by literary, pictorial and philosophical references, occupies a place all of its own. He has managed to capture all Alisa Weilerstein’s musical energy and her incredible instrumental freedom and write a concerto in which the cello and the orchestra constantly turn towards each other. This notion of progression, the desire to hear and to see further, which is the basis of his work, also happens to resonate with the programme of the symphonic poem Also Sprach Zarathustra. To this work, for which I have great affection and which I have often played, I have decided to add Szymanovski’s Concert Overture, a youthful work that clearly shows his love for Strauss. This link might not seem clear at first, but when one listens to the work, one can’t help smiling: one hears Strauss almost more clearly than in the music of Strauss himself. It is an extremely passionate and virtuoso work in which Szymanowski’s own style is not yet perceptible. It is a juvenile work, in which he had perhaps not yet invented his own way forward, but it is nonetheless a little gem.

Interviewed by Sarah Barbedette

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