Oramo will be great for the capital, if we treat him as an internationalist
I had the best ever tour of Helsinki in September courtesy of Sakari Oramo. He seized the microphone as our minibus edged slowly down a traffic-jammed Mannerheimintie and delivered a cavalcade of beautifully timed tongue-in-cheek observations on his home city – its citizens, architecture, and profusion of powerful Swedish speakers (the latter a traditional gripe, here aimed squarely at composer Sebastian Fagerlund who was on the seat in front of me).
That day I noticed for the first time that ‘twinkling smile’ Fiona Maddocks referred to in yesterday’s Guardian. Oramo is really quite enchanting – on the podium and off it. Wedded to his acute conducting technique is a teddy-bear-like physical persona. He wears his intellect with gregarious lightness but never seems anything less than utterly serious – one reason he’s so engaging a wit.
For Oramo fans like me, it seems bizarre that he’s had to wait until November to make his debut with a London orchestra. I was at that concert at the Barbican – not realising its significance – and it was a decidedly mixed affair. Oramo and his wife Anu Komsi shone in songs by Kaija Saariaho, and the maestro had the BBC Symphony Orchestra lunging and reeling in Bax’s Tintagel.
But the performance of Sibelius’s Third Symphony was a dud. The orchestra sounded completely wrong-footed by classic Sibelius figurations: the cross-hatching arpeggios and patiently stepping pedal notes. From where I sat, there was no understanding of the musical ‘river’ – that useful Sibelian metaphor which dictates that tempi and momentum are all connected, as tributaries to a greater meta-flow akin to the structural river the composer often talked about.
Oramo did his best. He’s a distinguished Sibelian whose symphony cycle with the CBSO was reissued by Warner only this week; on listening, it still sounds so strong in those very facets of pace and structure. He conducted a scintillatingly ‘new’ Kullervo with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra on Independence Day in December. But a good number of orchestras just don’t get Sibelius and I’d wager that the current BBC Symphony is one of them.
So let’s leave Sibelius behind. After all, Oramo’s compatriot John Storgårds will be refreshing the symphonies with the BBC Philharmonic from next season. And there are numerous other ways Oramo could enliven the sometimes docile ‘works band’, as the BBC SO is sometimes known. There’s his brilliant way with Russian music; his probing interest in post-Romantic British works; his rare understanding of orchestral Nielsen (as witness last summer’s Proms); and his championing of living composers (not least the aforementioned Fagerlund). How much Austrian, German, French, Spanish and American music could he treat us to with his sharp stick technique and adeptness for taut orchestral drilling? If I hear anything of a Sibelius cycle, though, I’ll emit a loud and pessimistic groan.
What we surely will get from Oramo are some suave shirts and three-piece suits, plenty of wry humour, and a fantastic communicative manner – itself a fine advert for orchestral music which loses nothing in the maestro’s nuanced English. And given his lack of presence in London, perhaps we should offer him a short bus-tour of a traffic-locked EC1. It’s the least we could do. On behalf of all the capital’s music lovers, welcome to London, Sakari – Tervetuloa Lontooseen!
Andrew Mellor is Reviews Editor at Gramophone magazine and writes widely for orchestras, opera companies, periodicals and websites in the UK and Scandinavia.