Finland’s Susanna Mälkki leads S.F. Symphony

COURTESY SIMON FOWLERFinnish conductor Susanna Mälkki directs the San Francisco Symphony in two concerts this weekend.

Susanna Mälkki, who made her San Francisco Symphony debut two years ago, is a rarity among a still rare breed: a world-acclaimed conductor among the relatively few women in the field.

Mälkki, 45, who appears again with the San Francisco Symphony this weekend, heads the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the major ensemble in her native Finland, and is principal guest conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Portugal.

She has conducted opera in Milan's famed Teatro alla Scala, the first of her gender on the podium of the 236-year-old company. The list goes on.

Yet Mälkki, who started her career as a cellist, doesn't like to dwell on the gender situation. (Even with recent progress, equality remains in the future. Of the 103 largest orchestras in the U.S., only 12 have female conductors; and in the top 22, there is only one, Marin Alsop in Baltimore.)

Mälkki prefers to talk about the program she is leading in Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday and Sunday.

The concerts open with Charles Griffes' rarely heard 1915 “White Peacock,” which Mälkki first conducted in Scotland. “I wanted to have an American work on the program,” she says, “and this is a beautiful French-influenced piece with luxurious sonorities.”

For the concerto, she selected Béla Bartók's 1945 Piano Concerto No. 3, one the composer's last works before his death the same year. Mälkki says it's “more classical in language, and crystalized musically, compared with other Bartóks of the period.”

She also selected it, she says, because “the first and second concertos are more difficult” even though she knows the soloist – pianist Jeremy Denk, Musical America’s 2014 Instrumentalist of the Year – could handle any of them.

The program also includes Johannes Brahms' 1877 Symphony No. 2, one of the composer's more cheerful and pastoral works, which Mälkki has performed several times recently, including with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at concerts she calls “very successful.”

A Los Angeles Times review said “She etched lines with a crisp and dry sensibility…. brought out details that took the breath away.”

In other San Francisco Symphony news, music director Michael Tilson Thomas is celebrating his 70th birthday (it’s Dec. 21) at special performances outside The City – in Vienna, Budapest and other places.

A local birthday gala is slated for Jan. 15 in Davies Symphony Hall, featuring a program in which MTT will conduct, and play, in Liszt’s rare “Hexameron for Six Pianos and Orchestra” with guest pianists Denk, Emanuel Ax, Marc-André Hamelin, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Yuja Wang.

IF YOU GO

San Francisco Symphony

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 29, 2 p.m. Nov. 30

Tickets: $15 to $158

Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org

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