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CSO’s guest conductor season begins with Susanna Malkki

Guest conductor SusannMalkki steps up podium lead CSO programs Oct. 17 19 22.| PHOTO BY SIMON FOWLER

Guest conductor Susanna Malkki steps up to the podium to lead the CSO in programs on Oct. 17, 19 and 22.| PHOTO BY SIMON FOWLER

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Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Susanna Malkki, conductor Leila Josefowicz, violin

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday,
8 p.m. Oct. 19 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22

Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $36-$81 Thursday;
$31-$147 Oct. 19 and 22.

Info: 312-294-3000;

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Updated: April 14, 2014 4:49PM

For the past several weeks, it’s been virtually all Verdi, all Muti all the time at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Since the CSO’s 123rd season open in mid-September, Music Director Riccardo Muti has been on the Symphony Center podium. Most of his programs included music of Verdi to celebrate the great composer’s bicentennial birthday year.

Music directors don’t stick around for an entire orchestral season, however, and beginning Oct. 17 the CSO will host a full roster of guest conductors. (Muti wrapped up his fall residency Oct. 11 but returns to Chicago for concerts in January, March and June.) Among the CSO’s podium guests are eminent veterans like Bernard Haitink, Pierre Boulez, Charles Dutoit and Christoph von Dohnanyi, some of whom have been regular CSO guests for decades. Younger conductors like Jaap van Zweden and Stephane Deneve are also on the schedule.

First up is Susanna Malkki, a Finnish conductor in her early 40s, whose star has been rising rapidly. Women are still a tiny minority in the conducting field. But with high achievers like Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony, and Jane Glover of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, they are beginning to make their mark. In fall 2011 Malkki had the kind of debut at Symphony Center that young conductors — not to mention orchestra musicians, staff and audiences — dream about. Her program included music of Charles Ives, Richard Strauss and contemporary composer Thea Musgrave. Critics raved, audiences were smitten and the CSO promptly invited her back for another engagement.

“It’s always a very interesting and exciting moment,” said Malkki, about taking the podium with an orchestra for the first time as a guest conductor. “There’s a curiosity for both parties. A colleague once referred to the situation of a cat and a mouse. Before you begin you don’t know which is the cat and which is the mouse. Of course, it’s a joke because we are collaborating. But there is this kind of observation going on.

“But that’s secondary,” she said. “The first thing is the music we’re going to do. And I tend to think that the best way to get to know each other is to get down to playing as quickly as possible.”

Malkki’s voice softened as she recalled her CSO debut.

“Oh,” she said with a happy sigh, “I keep incredible, warm memories about this. I think it was one — if not THE —highlight of my conducting life. It’s a gorgeous orchestra, and they were responding so beautifully. It was a great, great, great pleasure. It was a very big moment for me. This orchestra is very special. It’s not just any orchestra; it’s the CSO. So, from my side, it was loaded with adrenalin. But in a good sense, because I also knew it’s an excellent orchestra. I could probably expect wonders.”

“She was on our radar because of Pierre Boulez,’’ said Martha Gilmer, the CSO’s vice president of artistic administration. “She was head of the Ensemble Intercontemporain [a contemporary music ensemble founded by Boulez in Paris] for a few years. But she’d also worked with other American orchestras. While being very well known for new music, she wasn’t just a specialist. Her programming has a lot of texture and contrast to it.

According to Gilmer, the CSO wants its guest conductor lineup to include both the elder statesmen like Haitink and Dutoit and talented newcomers. Sometimes the orchestra has a specific work it wants the guest to conductor; more often they exchange ideas about possible programming.

“It’s a dialogue,’’ said Gilmer.

This week Malkki conducts the CSO in the Suite No. 1 from “The Tempest” by Jean Sibelius, Finland’s preeminent composer; Debussy’s “La Mer,” Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto with soloist Leila Josefowicz and “…but all shall be well” by contemporary English composer Thomas Ades.

Malkki had worked closely with Ades several years ago on performances of his 1995 opera, “Powder Her Face.’’

“We haven’t done a lot of Ades,” said Gilmer. “He’s somebody we respect, and we’re happy she’s bringing his work to us.”

Wynne Delacoma is a local freelance writer.

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