Key Points:

Don't ask Susanna Malkki what it's like being a woman conductor. She will quickly point out it is not an issue. On the afternoon of her first concert with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the Finnish conductor is happier talking about the special relationship between podium and players.

The virtues of flexibility and spontaneity are emphasised, and her background as an orchestral cellist has been invaluable.

"As a conductor," she says, "I'm an outsider who comes in and there are always things which need to be solved. I have the advantage of once having been on the so-called inside. Communication is important, including how the orchestra communicates within itself."

But, the 37-year-old maestra muses, music should always come first. She will talk of ideal performance goals but what is required is simple. "You get the music, get an idea of what the composer was thinking, and then try to do justice to the music. You see something which has the potential to be incredibly beautiful and then you have to work hard to make it so."

Featured on this New Zealand tour is a score that carries special responsibilities. Lissa Meridan's This Present Brightness was awarded the 2006 Lilburn Prize late last month. "I am struck by the way the composer uses the bright colours of the orchestra giving it a certain luminosity," says Malkki.

"Not only is it very sonorous but it has a beautiful shape, an arch shape with dramatic moments."

The conductor also commends the Lilburn Prize as being "great to give your composers the chance to be noticed and performed".

Praise indeed from a citizen of a country that is often painted as a cultural paradise. "I'm afraid the success story is a little bit threatened," she admits ruefully. "These are difficult times for culture everywhere, and Finland is no exception.

"We are waiting for a fantastic concert hall in Helsinki. We have many good venues in the rest of the country but not one in the capital."

Malkki is also concerned about the downgrading of musical education in her homeland, the effect of which won't be felt for 10 or 15 years.

Even now, in her new post as music director of Boulez's Ensemble Intercontemporain, she finds craftsmanship is not always what it should be with young composers.

"It's healthy that many young composers don't come from the usual university background, but they would write better music if they knew more and had a bigger vocabulary."

Although no dogmatic avant-gardist, she worries about the infiltration of more popular idioms into contemporary music. "The danger with pop culture is that one idea is enough for a piece, whereas classical music is based on counterpoint and dialogue, and you build up to something.

"It's good to have variety but I don't think we should compromise."

This weekend, Malkki is giving us fairly staple fare, from Stravinsky's Firebird and Mahler's Fifth Symphony to Beethoven and Sibelius Violin Concertos, both with the brilliant Vadim Repin.

"We are very proud of Sibelius," says Malkki, adding that it is difficult to analyse his power. "It might be that I have grown up with it and know it well, but there is also something about the mood, a certainly melancholy and earthiness which I can relate to."

These days she is closely associated with the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and later this month, goes to Vienna for the world premiere of Saariaho's new oratorio, La Passion de Simone, based on the writings of Simone Weil.

"Saariaho's music is changing all the time, as she finds new ways to express herself. I always find it easy to understand what she is after and the feedback from the composer confirms my instinct is right. It's very, very expressive."


* What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

* Where and when: Founders Theatre Hamilton, tomorrow at 8pm; Auckland Town Hall, Friday 6.30pm and Saturday 8pm