Like the many different ways they gesture on the podium, there are numerous paths to becoming a conductor. It just turns out that Finnish maestra Susanna Malkki's course is strikingly similar to that of Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which she will conduct this weekend for the first time.
Both Mr. Honeck and Ms. Malkki [MAL-key] spent considerable time in high-level professional orchestras -- he as a violist in the Vienna Philharmonic and she as a cellist in the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden -- before being beckoned by the baton.
"Somewhere in the back of my mind I had an interest in conducting," says the Helsinki-born Malkki, 41. "I play a melody instrument but rhythm and structure have always been important to me -- I definitely think score-wise. [But] I didn't think of [conducting] seriously until I was in my 20s. I was in the [Gothenburg Symphony] and started taking conducting classes at the Sibelius Academy."
While working both sides of the podium occasionally was stressful for her, in the end, being in the orchestra was as crucial to Ms. Malkki's training as her studies with esteemed teacher Jorma Panula.
"I was sitting in the first desk and observing all the conductors that were in front of me," she says, something Mr. Honeck often talks about as being a major influence.
Eventually, Ms. Malkki had to learn by doing. "There are some things you just have to do to understand," she says of leading a professional orchestra in concert. "It is like watching sports and saying, 'Why don't you do a goal?' "
She ended her career as an orchestra musician in 1998 and started to freelance as a conductor. She landed a position as artistic director of Norway's Stavanger Symphony in 2002. Two years later, her biggest break came with a debut with Ensemble Intercontemporain, the iconic orchestra devoted to new music and founded by one of the industry's most lauded conductors, composer Pierre Boulez.
"Ever since I started conducting I led contemporary music concerts. In my very first concert ever I had a world premiere," she says. "I had worked with many contemporary ensembles before my first contact with Ensemble Intercontemporain."
She so impressed the group that it hired her as music director in 2006. She has been successful in that post and it has helped her confidence. "I conducted 'Gruppen' by Stockhausen," she says of the huge work for three orchestras. "After that you are not afraid of anything."
Ms. Malkki is even getting used to visits by the often intimidating Boulez. "In the beginning if he came to my concerts it was almost like an exam," she laughs.
Lately, Ms. Malkki's career has led her to the international guest conducting circuit. This has increased her profile, but also decreased the amount of contemporary repertoire she can conduct, since major orchestras tend to program canonical masterworks. That's more than OK with her.
"Twentieth-century repertoire is close to my heart ... but I need the old repertory, too," she says. "I love that I am doing [it] with these great orchestras."
For her debut with the PSO Ms. Malkki will bring two works by the famed Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius. "Music is very important to us and Sibelius is most important," she says. "He succeeded in uniting a nation that was bilingual at the time."
First up is "Finlandia," one of classical music's most well-known compositions.
"We are a small nation," she says. "The word nationalism usually has a negative echo, but for us it has the meaning of independence. We have all grown up with 'Finlandia.' "
Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 is not as well known, but Ms. Malkki is a strong advocate.
"It is such a fantastic piece," she says. "It is only 20 minutes and very dense. The musical material is there from the beginning, but what he does to change the relationship between the musical cells is very interesting, if we compare it to traditional melody and accompaniment. In Sibelius these are intertwined and you sometimes don't know which is which. There is an evolution, so to speak."
That's also been the case for Ms. Malkki's career.
"When I started conducting, everything made sense in a certain way," she says. "I was just drawn to this."
Violinist Leila Josefowicz will solo in Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 in the concerts this weekend.