Why so many conducting Finns?

Andrew MellorFri 11th May 2012

An extraordinary one-off project reveals a lot about a small country’s podium prowess

Some months ago we sat round the Gramophone planning table and threw some feature ideas about. One subject on the very long agenda – and not one tabled by me, I hasten to add – concerned the question of why Finland produces so many prominent conductors. Another asked why increasing numbers of instrumentalists are picking up the baton.

The latter idea came good, and is the basis of an interesting, multi-faceted article in the June issue of Gramophone by our staff writer Charlotte Smith. But it struck me that the two issues might actually be connected – a thought prompted by a long discussion I had recently with the current chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (and principal guest of the BBC Philharmonic), John Storgårds.

I was interviewing Storgårds in Helsinki for a Finnish publication, and as we drew in on the subject of Finland’s disproportionate number of prominent conductors – and all the benefits and frustrations that can engender for both established maestros and wannabes – Storgårds told me of a meeting of Finnish baton-wielders called by the maestro Okko Kamu, the new principal conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

‘Okko has a chamber music festival and last summer for one project he booked only Finnish conductors,' Storgårds explained. ‘He had this idea many years ago, and he booked us all in very good time. So we did chamber music together for a week in July, we rehearsed like hell every day and it was really great.’

And what does a chamber ensemble of Finnish conductors look like? A little like this: ‘We had Osmo [Vänskä] there playing clarinet, Jukka-Pekka Saraste on violin, Okko [Kamu] on violin, myself [Storgårds] on violin, Susanna Mälkki played cello, Hannu Lintu played cello, Sakari Oramo played viola, Pietari Inkinen was on violin and then we had Leif [Segerstam] on the piano.’

So that’s a chamber ensemble made up of, respectively, the chief conductors of the Minnesota Orchestra, the Oslo Philharmonic, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestras (plus BBC Symphony Orchestra chief-designate), the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and, for good measure, the Helsinki Philharmonic’s conductor laureate (who also doubles as the Sibelius Institute’s professor of conducting). Not a bad line up.

‘The first rehearsal was very wild,' Storgårds recalls. ‘We had a lot of fun and jokes about it, but it was professional standard music-making and it was very healthy for all involved. Of course we got to talk through our experiences together.’ A recurring theme in my interview with Storgårds was how vital he sees the principles of chamber music to both orchestral playing and conducting – and he isn’t the only Finnish conductor to have emphasised the point. 

Superb music education, a sympathetic national psyche (some might say ‘ingrained’ musical culture), good physical infrastructures and lots of selfless hard work have much to do with the success of Finnish conductors (and singers, and violinists, and pianists). But the rise of ‘playing conductors’ highlighted by Charlotte Smith has meant that Finnish maestros – most of whom played in orchestras long before being taken to one side by the famous Sibelius Academy talent scout Jorma Panula – have found themselves bang in tune with the orchestral zeitgeist of collaboration and hard work. 

Perhaps it’s not so much about Finnish musicians conquering the world as the world catching up with the longstanding Finnish practise of learning your craft in the orchestra before considering yourself able to command one. A very Finnish attitude, and a very un-British one, if I may be so bold – and something to think about next time you’re watching Leif Segerstam or Esa-Pekka Salonen. The latter, as it happens, sent his apologies to Okko Kamu – apparently he’s not sure where he left his horn.

Andrew Mellor

Andrew Mellor is Reviews Editor at Gramophone magazine and writes widely for orchestras, opera companies, periodicals and websites in the UK and Scandinavia.

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