By Jussi Rosendahl
HELSINKI (Reuters) - Orchestra conductor Susanna Malkki is used to being asked what it is like working in a male-dominated world.
"Maybe one day we will have reached a point where we won't have to discuss the gender issue at all," she said with a smile.
Only a few women have made it to top conducting positions in classical music, and Finland's Malkki has joined the list: the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra has appointed her as its next chief conductor starting in 2016.
She joins a small group of musicians that includes American Marin Alsop at the helm of the Baltimore Symphony and São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, and Australian Simone Young, director at the Hamburg State Opera and Philharmonic.
The 45-year-old Malkki has won praise around the globe. Her seven seasons as the music director of Ensemble Intercontemporain, a French group founded by Pierre Boulez, earned her a profile as a new music specialist.
Now she is set to take over the first professional symphony orchestra in the Nordic region, which between 1892 and 1923 premiered most symphonic works by Jean Sibelius, with the composer himself on the podium.
Watching Helsinki bathe in an autumn sun through the windows of its new Music Centre, Malkki, who still lives in Paris, said she was excited about the assignment.
"The appointment feels very special as I know so many of these musicians from the past. The biggest compliment a conductor can get from orchestra musicians is to hear that they want to work with you again," she said over a cup of coffee.
Malkki looks forward to working with the orchestra on classical repertoire, but also aims to diversify.
"During my first season here, French music will be strongly in focus. There will be new and old, French, Italian and more. I like to bundle the present and the past in programs, I'm not fond of categorizing music too much. The Germanic tradition will come later."
Malkki started as a cellist, rising to be principal cellist in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.
But her passion for exploring orchestral scores prompted her to apply for a conducting class led by Jorma Panula - the 'maestro of maestros' who instructed a generation of well known Finnish conductors including Esa-Pekka Salonen, Sakari Oramo and Osmo Vanska.
"I was very aware that the tradition of the profession is extremely masculine. I knew that if I wanted to do this, I have to be particularly good at it," Malkki said.
After three years, she decided to leave the cello, and by the time she finished Panula's class, job offers were arriving. The ultimate breakthrough was in 1999 as she conducted Thomas Ades's opera "Powder Her Face", to rave reviews.
Malkki also holds the post of principal guest conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Portugal and she is a regular guest conductor at top European and North American concert halls. This season she will make her conducting debut with the Philadelphia and Cleveland orchestras, the New York Philharmonic and at the Hamburg State Opera as well as La Fenice in Venice.
With all that happening for her, it might seem the glass ceiling is well and truly smashed, but Malkki said there was still some distance to go before women are treated as equals.
"The expectations are different ... they can be higher, they can be lower. Of course, neither is good," she said. "But all communication is two-way, and this question is not just about one's skills or vision but also about how others perceive it."
"Then again, 20 years ago when I started conductor studies, I think no one could have imagined this appointment would happen this year," she added.
Malkki is praised for her sharp, clear and demanding style of conducting. She says she tries to strike a balance between strong leadership and working cooperatively with musicians, and cites Jorma Panula's advice: 'help, don't disturb'.
"We all are doing this for the music, and the conductor can at best be a kind of element in the orchestra that makes everything easy. The primary job is to do justice to the music. I seek to infect my enthusiasm for the music to others."
And how, in her view, did the small Nordic country of Finland become such a source of world-class conductors?
"High morale for work, pragmatism, and deep love in the music."
(Edited by Michael Roddy and Robin Pomeroy)