Maestro Mälkki Set To Lead Fantasy Opera ‘Alice’ In LA

Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki this week conducts Unsuk Chin’s fantasy opera, 'Alice in Wonderland,' in Los Angeles.  (Photo by Simon Fowler)
Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki this week conducts Unsuk Chin’s fantasy opera, ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ in Los Angeles.
(Photo by Simon Fowler)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES — Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki, a champion of contemporary music, has come to the right place this week — the 21st-century music temple known as Walt Disney Concert Hall. She is here to lead the belated West Coast premiere on Feb. 27 of Unsuk Chin’s fantasy opera Alice in Wonderland, the latest installment in the forward-thinking Los Angeles Philharmonic’s in/Sight series and a collaboration with Los Angeles Opera.

Alice should have received its world premiere here a decade ago, since LA Opera commissioned it for then-music director Kent Nagano’s final season at the helm. But budget cutbacks forced the company to cancel, so Nagano took Alice with him to his new post in Munich in 2007. The Munich production (at right) was the work of Achim Freyer, later the creator of LA Opera’s controversial Ring cycle. The Disney Hall version, as tailored to the dimensions of the surround-sound hall by director-designer Netia Jones and featuring projections of drawings by Ralph Steadman (whose savage artwork regularly accompanied Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo journalism), promises to be something quite different.

Ralph Steadman's White Rabbit (LA Phil)
White Rabbit, as envisioned by Ralph Steadman. (Courtesy of Netia Jones)

Mälkki had not yet seen the full production with projections at the time we met in the guest conductor’s suite within Disney Hall on Feb. 22. But she gave a vivid description of the polystylistic ingredients within this score in sharply Finnish-accented English.

“I think you really have lots of different kinds of things without it being a fruit salad of just anything,” she said.  “There are many allusions. You have some baroque references, you have a little bit of Schoenberg and Sprechgesang, used in a very, very humorous way. You have rap, a beautiful little salsa feeling, you know! You have grand-style big-band moments, you have a little bit of Petrouchka.

Composer Unsuk Chin (Eric Richmond)
Composer Unsuk Chin (Eric Richmond)

“But what I really want to underline is it’s really not just all kinds of things because it’s all very cleverly thought out in a dramatic sense and it’s still really Unsuk Chin’s music.  So it’s not pastiche. It’s her music having those influences.”

Mälkki is not a newcomer to Chin’s world. She first heard some of her music at a festival in Finland over a dozen years ago, and she led the U.S. premiere of Chin’s Cello Concerto with the Boston Symphony in 2011. Mälkki has conducted a half-hour concert suite, <i>Scenes From Alice in Wonderland</i> for symphony orchestra and two soloists, but not the entire work until now.

“It’s a very special piece in her oeuvre, so to speak,” Mälkki said.  “People have asked her to write more music of this kind, but her reply is that no, this was just for this particular production. She has a great ability to create dramatic tension in music. It’s extremely colorful, and actually without making any concessions on the intellectual art, it’s accessible at the same time. It’s very virtuosic. You need to have good musicians and singers.”

Given the complexity of the multimedia staging going on in this production, the conductor has to be the central driving force. “Because Netia is such a musician, she is actually following the conductor,” Mälkki said.

Director-designer Netia Jones (Courtesy of LA Philharmonic)
Director-designer Jones tailored projections for Disney Hall. (Courtesy of Netia Jones)

“There’s nothing that you have to wait for in terms of video happening, or be dependent upon a click track or something. We can really do it under the conditions of the music, which is wonderful.”

Mälkki, who turns 46 in March, is an alumna of Finland’s vaunted Sibelius Academy, which has poured forth a long string of distinguished musicians since Sibelius’ day. She started out on the cello, rising to the post of principal cellist in Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony in the 1990s, but stopped playing as her conducting career gradually ascended.

She was the first woman to head Paris’ Ensemble InterContemporain, and she will become chief conductor of her hometown Helsinki Philharmonic in fall 2016. This season, she’s really playing in the big leagues, making the rounds of many of the leading American orchestras — Los Angeles, of course, San Francisco, and debuts with New York, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. But only in Los Angeles, where she has conducted twice before, is she tackling contemporary music this season; the other cities have her doing standard repertoire (mainly Brahms) and a few outliers from the past.

Chin and Mälkki take a bow with Alban Gerhardt at the U.S. premiere of Chin's Cello Concerto. (Boston Symphony Orchestra, Feb. 10, 2011. Photo by Stu Rosner)
Chin, Mälkki take a bow with Alban Gerhardt at U.S. premiere of Chin’s Cello Concerto.
(Stu Rosner photo courtesy of Boston Symphony Orchestra, Feb. 10, 2011.)

Nevertheless, has Mälkki noticed a greater willingness among orchestras in general to take on new music in the last few years, not just at the LA Phil? “I think so,” she replied. “This is definitely thanks to visionary conductors who have started with this kind of programming. Of course, here in LA we had (Esa-Pekka) Salonen for a long time. Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco has been doing it for a long time, David Robertson (in St. Louis), and recently, Alan Gilbert in New York. It’s becoming just a healthy part of the whole mix.

“In Europe, it depends upon where you are. In northern Europe, it’s present, in Germany, sometimes it’s very much divided between some orchestras who do a lot and others who don’t do much. But I think it’s changing everywhere. It takes time to convince audiences if they’re not used to it. Also the ears understand more, the more you actually give this kind of information. Music from 100 years ago can still sound much too modern to some people.”

Susanna Malkki (Simon Fowler)
Mälkki is also a fan of ‘just listening.’ (Simon Fowler)

Also, multimedia concerts seem to be on the rise. The LA Phil’s in/Sight series is one example, and Hollywood Bowl is increasingly loaded with events that use visual accompaniments to the music and vice-versa. One wonders whether this will become the standard way of presenting concert music to generations raised on video games and the Internet.

“I think it’s wonderful that these things are taking place,” Mälkki said. “But at the same time, I’m a great defender of just the listening itself.

“I think for a lot of people, listening is easier when there is something to look at. It can actually open the listening for those who are not used to only listening. But the concert experience itself can be beautiful also as it is. When you see the musicians who are busy playing — especially contemporary music — that’s something that you definitely have to experience live. We live in a very visual world, and I don’t think that classical or concert music should stay outside from that. But I hope that both ways can coexist.”

Mälkki started out using a baton, then gave it up years ago after an arm injury. But as of a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Gulbenkian Orchestra of Lisbon a few weeks ago, she has resumed working with a stick. “I left out the baton because I had a little accident, and not having it made it better,” she said. “Then I noticed I could do very well without the baton and felt very comfortable without it. It felt like I had my hands in the earth. But now I’m having it again for the moment. I took it up when I did the Mahler Nine because I knew that I would need it actually. It was never a matter of conviction one way or another.”

And that’s not the only artifact from her past that has returned. I noticed a hard-shell cello case on the floor of the suite. Yes, she’s picked up the cello again, too.

“There were a few years where I didn’t play at all,” Mälkki said. “Then I came back to it and I realized that I missed it without knowing it. I played for a quarter of a century, a big part of my life, and I’m very happy to be playing again because I’m back with the physical act of making the sound. I’m definitely in it. I play every day if I can.”

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.



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