Conducting Francesconi. An interview with Susanna Mälkki

by Marilena Laterza

On the page. Universal Music Publishing Classical Yearbook 2012, pp. 8-11 |

In the spring of 2011 Susanna Mälkki undertook the daunting task of taking up the baton at the Teatro alla Scala to conduct the world premiere of Luca Francesconi’s Quartett, an opera in 13 scenes, based on the play of the same name by Heiner Müller, drawn from Laclos’s Les liaisons dangereuses. A brilliant exponent of the Finnish conducting school and since 2006 musical director of Ensemble Intercontemporain, Susanna Mälkki, still in her early forties, is perfectly at home on the podium before the world’s most prestigious orchestras. Driven by a keen interest in the music of today, she spoke to us on a sunny afternoon in Chicago about Quartett and the music of Luca Francesconi.

You have been working with Luca Francesconi now for a number of years. In 2007, before taking on the challenge of Quartett, you conducted and then recorded for Kairos Etymo, Da capo, A fuoco and Animus. Then, in 2010, Francesconi invited you to the Venice Biennale to conduct a concert featuring music by Berio and Romitelli. Could you tell us a little bit about your relationship with Francesconi from an artistic, cultural and human point of view?

Extremely rich and inspiring in every respect. I have chosen to perform his music a lot, because it speaks to me very directly. My musical instinct is very strong and almost without exception it knows which way to jump. I’m sure it has to do with the fact that Luca Francesconi himself has had a background as a musician; he doesn’t forget (or wish to avoid!) the input of the performer; quite the contrary, his music actually calls for it. So I imagine that it’s something he values, and, of course, I was really honoured when he asked me to do the premiere of Quartett. And then, if by “cultural” you mean the general avant-garde framework, I certainly feel an affinity with his approach, which is less rigid and less dogmatic than that of many others. An artist must always “zoom out” and see the bigger picture.

So how would you situate Francesconi’s music both in terms of the contemporary music scene and in terms of tradition?

It all depends on how we define “tradition”. Personally I think that there are still a lot of dimensions to be discovered even in so-called modernity… But yes, it is fascinating in Luca Francesconi’s case, because, having the necessary compositional skill, he is able to use even the strictest modernist vocabulary very well – if he chooses to, (like in some parts of Quartett, perhaps more on that later), but he never feels obliged to. So there is definitely a little bit of a “mutant” in him too, in my opinion, thinking of the theme he has chosen for the Venice Biennale this year.

From your vantage point as an orchestra conductor what are the salient technical and stylistic features that you see in Francesconi’s music?

If we start with three traditional elements – melody, harmony, rhythm – whatever the order of their importance in the particular musical context, I think they are all always still there, which is in itself something that could be considered “traditional”, but, as the proportions change all the time, the music remains fresh. As for timbre and orchestration, well, that really depends on the piece. All in all there is quite a broad range, with Ligeti-like microstructures at one end and at the other big symphonic landscapes that remind me at times of Sibelius! So I would say that he has a very large musical vocabulary. This is what I would define as “writing techniques”. More interesting, however, is to observe how these are used – or not used – in order to serve the dramaturgy of the piece.

What type of relationship does the music establish with the text and dramaturgy of Quartett?

Actually, I think that with this score Luca Francesconi has given a complete interpretation of the play as he reads it. If you read the original Müller text, there are very few markings apart from the spoken words: no question marks, no exclamation marks, just words. Also, we have to remember that any composer of an opera is also the dramaturg of the piece as well, for the pace of the events is fixed in the score (music happening in linear time, which, compared to theatre, is usually quite strictly proportioned). I found very impressive Francesconi’s way of giving musical “hints”, of making connections with different stories or thoughts in the text, not necessarily in the form of a leitmotiv but definitely something of the kind, suddenly triggering memories and giving references. Some of the most moving moments in the opera for me were just these. So there is definitely a deep psychological insight present in the score. The other important thing to note is the use of different kinds of music in order to highlight different “manners” of interaction between the two personas, or to highlight the difference between their exterior façade and their hidden vulnerable personality, as in the “dream” sequences.

What contribution do the electronics and the technology make?

Luckily, from the performer’s point of view, music technology has advanced at such an incredible speed over the last few decades that most things in electronics can now be done in real time – as was the case in Quartett too – and this is really revolutionary and fantastic, because it means that the flexibility of time and timing is not limited; the music can breathe just as it needs to, which is especially important in opera where timing is everything! But what really brings us to a completely different musical landscape is the fact that the electronics can also vary the conditions of the sound and manipulate the sound itself. The sound can move in space, it can be transformed and treated in hundreds of different ways.  As a simple example, the vocal line of Mme Merteuil was treated with a harmoniser in a couple of places in order to stress the line, the thought, to highlight it in the context. This immediately gives us a new point of view, or better, a new angle of hearing.

And also a new compositional approach to such a highly historicised  genre as opera?

All the important opera composers throughout history have both used existing forms and added something new. And if you compare the baroque opera scene today with how it was some decades ago, we have now discovered, with new directors, that these old works were actually really radical and still are! But of course it is absolutely essential to have sufficient knowledge of the “genre”, just to be able to manage such a big machine to begin with: renewing the tradition is, paradoxically, only possible if you are very familiar with the tradition in the first place. Francesconi has that knowledge, and since this foundation is so solid, he can add new features and do so very successfully indeed.

I imagine that these novel elements in Quartett have involved distinct problems and led to particular interpretative choices.

As I said before, Francesconi’s music is very clear to me, so I never actually even thought of having to make choices of interpretation: it’s all there in the score! But then again, making all this feel natural for the others – helping the singers in their incredibly concentrated study period, the musicians and the choir – that was of course as intense a journey as it always is with new works. It takes time to digest things that are completely new and at the same time very virtuosic, and we had very little time!

Luca Francesconi has said that Quartett came out of a reflection on the sense of identity, which is lost “in an infinite multiplication of mirrors where nothing has value, in a nihilistic and tragic delirium that can be seen as a metaphor of the whole of Western civilisation and […] of a destiny which seems to have deep repercussions for the role of art today”. Do you think that in the context of the pluralism that characterizes music today it is possible or necessary to try to achieve a shared identity?

I wouldn’t say “shared identity”, because it is actually a beautiful thing that we are all individuals and we should be allowed to be that, but yes, sharing a cultural framework and, most importantly, a cultural heritage will be a key factor if we want to sustain civilization, or the arts, or contemporary music or anything of intellectual value, really. Human memory is extremely short, individually speaking, but collective memory and heritage are vast, and real culture is just that. Responsibility comes as a consequence (I’m an optimist), but pluralism is not necessarily a bad thing.

Ambiguity between the real and the virtual is by now a fundamental condition in our lives as human beings in the 21st century and in Quartett this ambiguity is an integral part of the music, the visual spectacle, the text and the dramaturgy. What are your thoughts on all this?

I think – in the case of Quartett – that the use of all these different “virtual” technologies in the production was something that in the end made it easier for the audience to understand the different layers in the existence of Merteuil and Valmont, their different mental spaces. The multimedia component is not a game just to show off with but a tool to open up new horizons. And let’s remember that the origin is to be found in the play by Laclos, written centuries ago! Another ambiguity present in Quartett is the one between public and private – a phenomenon that seems to have always existed in society but there is no doubt that in the 21st century the nature of the mass media makes it a much more dominant part of our lives… It’s about manipulation on a mass level. This is another good reason to keep the arts alive, to keep questioning all this.

Translation: Casa Ricordi, Milan