During a rehearsal in Los Angeles in October, Mälkki was, as in Helsinki, amiable and assertive. Carolyn Hove, the Philharmonic’s English horn player, described Mälkki as “100 percent prepared” by the time she arrives at the podium, and that “when a conductor is really efficient, it just makes our jobs so much more fun.”
While running through Scriabin’s “Le Poème de l’Extase,” Mälkki gestured to sections of the ensemble but also let her gaze shift upward. (“Some people listen with their eyes closed,” she said, “and I guess my way of looking up is the same, that I want to free my ears.”) All the while, she kept notes in her head that she rattled off as soon as the playing stopped.
Those notes were thorough, and crucial, as the orchestra rehearsed for the American premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s “Vista,” a piece dedicated to Mälkki, who is a leading navigator of Saariaho’s idiosyncratic sound world. “I always trusted her, and she understands my music,” Saariaho said in June, shortly before Mälkki conducted the world premiere of her opera “Innocence” at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France.
Over the past two decades, their relationship has developed to the point where, Saariaho said, “we don’t need to verbalize very much.” When “L’Amour de Loin” arrived at the Metropolitan Opera in 2016, Saariaho insisted that Mälkki conduct it. (She will return to the Met to conduct Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” this spring.)
Mälkki’s specialty in living composers like Saariaho is one of the reasons she was brought to Los Angeles, Smith said. “The other part,” he added, “was just the way she thinks about programming, which is unique.” He used that October concert as an example: opening with “Vista,” followed by Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and the “Poème.”