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6.3.2017 Blog

MUSICAL TORONTO INTERVIEW – Talking Conductors and Composers With Hannu Lintu

Like so many Finnish conductors you studied with the legendary Jorma Panula. Panula’s students include Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Sakari Oramo, Mikko Frank, Osmo Vänska and Susanna Mälkki. Why has Panula been so successful training conductors? What is his secret?

First of all, Panula has an instinct for recognizing conducting talent. He seems to know who is gifted even before teaching begins. Secondly, he doesn’t teach technique. He lets his students do what they want as long as they show what they want and express their own ideas. It is a very essential part of this Finnish school of conducting that we don’t talk much. Conductors like Celibidache talked a lot but I feel that he was simply showing off how much he knew. Conductors like Abbado and Panula believe that the musicians already know a lot and don’t have to be told what to do. The conductor should try to work with them to raise the performance to a higher level.

Panula does not do so much teaching. He is more like Joda. What he does is a kind of Zen. Just being around him and having discussions is really inspirational. Another point he emphasizes: a conductor must have the will, a strong need to express how he feels about the music he conducts or he will not succeed.

When you were young who were the conductors you most admired?

I was ten years old and playing the cello when I saw Leif Segerstam conduct Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Savonlinna Opera Festival. It made a deep impression on me, how he could control such large numbers of people — players, chorus, and soloists. He was a great opera conductor and seeing him, that’s when I decided I wanted to be a conductor. I admired Solti, and I still do. I was introduced to the Mahler symphonies and Wagner operas through his recordings. I also admired Bernstein for the courage he had to do things as he did. I admired Abbado too for his ability to keep the music moving, without stress. And Haitink has this ability too. Then there are the older conductors. Everything I hear by Jascha Horenstein is fantastic. And Artur Rodzinski too. I admire Mahler too as a conductor. Obviously, I never saw him conduct but just reading about him, and his ideas about conducting and repertoire. He must have been a great conductor.

You have been a great champion of the music of Finnish composers. Obviously, this is an important part of your heritage. But I was especially intrigued with the Playlist you created for a magazine article. You called it “Interconnectedness and Nature.” Clearly, you have very strong views about what it means to be a Finnish composer, how Finnish composers relate to nature in their own country. Can you elaborate on that idea?

This goes back to Panula too. We did a lot of Haydn – he didn’t much like Mozart or Beethoven — and a lot of Sibelius. And just as important in his classes was Finnish contemporary music — composers such as Rautavaara, Sariajo, Aho. We learned that it was important to learn how composers think, often by talking to the composers themselves. If I understand what Rautavaara thought it is possible I might understand better what Beethoven thought. Of course, music sounds different nowadays, but I think that the process is the same.

We Finns have some strange connection to nature — I think the Japanese have the same — we observe the sky, the forests, the lakes, and the weather. But it is not just a practical matter. It is metaphysical. I would suggest you listen to a work like Tapiola by Sibelius and that will tell you what the relationship is between Finns and nature. We understand that there is in nature something we can’t see or understand, that it is bigger than we are, and that it will be here long after we are gone. This idea is expressed in many different ways in music by Finnish composers such as Sibelius and Rautavaara.

Magnus Lindberg is a contemporary Finnish composer who has achieved a great degree of international success. He has been composer-in-residence of the New York philharmonic and his works are played all over the world. You are playing one of his recent works in Toronto. Can you tell us about Lindberg and about the piece?

He started as a modernist and I don’t think he would be offended if I said that he is now going in a more romantic direction. And a good sign of that is that he is now composing for the voice — in the past he didn’t write any vocal music. Accused is a piece commissioned by the Canadian soprano-conductor Barbara Hannigan and premiered about two years ago in London. Each of the three movements is an interrogation involving various historical and political elements — Dreyfuss, Bradley Manning and the CIA, and the East German Stasi — in which the singer is both the one who asks the questions and the one who answers. I think it works well. We played it in Helsinki before Christmas, and my musicians who have played everything Lindberg has written thought it was his best work so far.

This coming April you are conducting the Sibelius Kullervo Symphony in a staged version at the Finnish National Opera. But this is a symphony, or a choral symphony if you will. How are you producing it for the stage and why should it be done this way?

It’s a ballet, and the choreographer is one of the finest I know — Tero Saarinen — and Kullervo tells a story from the Kalevala that is told in the course of the five movements, and it is very dramatic. Kullervo is not really a symphony — Sibelius didn’t know what to call it. It is really five separate symphonic poems. Sibelius was young and thinking about writing an opera although he never did. I think Kullervo is a hybrid piece, and as such, I think it is entirely possible to stage it as a ballet. Saarinen has the male chorus on stage with the dancers and the orchestra in the pit, and all of them on stage are moving in different ways. It is very effective.

You are chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. You get to conduct practically anything you want, including a lot of contemporary music. You don’t have to worry about fundraising or marketing — it must be a dream job!

It is. First of all, I have an orchestra in my hometown. It is very rare for a conductor to go to work from your own home. The orchestra gets its money from the Finnish Broadcasting Company, which gets its money from the government. And it is the law that the government must support Finnish culture. We play a lot of Finnish music, and we are happy to do it. We also tour a lot. We just gave concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg and last year we were in Vienna and Salzburg, next year we are in Berlin, Munich, and Madrid. We also play Baroque music and we have baroque specialists come regularly as guest conductors.

At a time when very few orchestras and conductors have recording contracts, you are making recordings regularly in Helsinki, mostly for the label Ondine. How is this possible? Who provides the money for all these recordings? Is there a market for them?

We play in the concert hall of the Helsinki Music Centre, quite a new hall, and it is equipped with microphones and recording equipment. All we have to do is press a button. We have a good relationship with the Finnish record company Ondine, and for them we record a lot of Finnish music but also Berio, Mahler and Prokofiev, and soon we will record all the Lutoslawski symphonies. We are very lucky. We make four or five recordings a year for Ondine – these are studio recordings not live – and some of them are selling well, especially a set of the Sibelius symphonies with analysis on DVD (Arthaus Musik DVD 101796). From another perspective, these recordings and the preparation required, are helping us become a better orchestra, and a better-known orchestra. The recordings are our calling cards.

Many American and Canadian orchestras are presently looking for new music directors – Toronto, Dallas and Detroit among them. Can you imagine taking one of these jobs, knowing that your role would probably be much different from what it is with your radio orchestra? With a North American orchestra you would be much more concerned with fundraising and marketing, and you would have many more people telling you what you could play and what you couldn’t play.

Yes, especially the marketing department. I know, I know! Well, things happen. If a North American orchestra asked me to come as music director a lot would depend on the city. Cities are so different — almost like different countries — and I would have to ask ‘Do I want to work in this environment? Is it inspiring?’ Of course in Finland, I have to do lobbying and planning, but with a North American orchestra, I would have to do 500% more. But I would consider it.


By Paul E. Robinson


23.2.2017 Blog


The orchestral Debussy transcriptions by Colin Matthews are even “too good”


This concert begins with Colin Matthews’ transcriptions of the Debussy Preludes and ends with Ravel’s transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. How would you describe a good transcription: one that could have been the composer’s own, or even something more?

Matthews’ transcriptions are even a tad “too good”. He did them with such precision that they are more Debussyan than Debussy himself. Every note, timbre and articulation is carefully premeditated – Debussy himself would have been a little more perfunctory. Piano pieces seldom contain textures of the kind you commonly find in orchestral ones. Which is why, for example, it’s hopeless trying to orchestrate any Beethoven piano sonata, and why the piano transcriptions of orchestral works often sound jam-packed and artificial.

The most important thing is for the orchestrator to know how to allow for the effect of the piano’s sustain pedal; this applies especially in the case of Debussy. To some extent this is maybe precisely why Matthews has taken quite a few liberties with the tempos; according to the metronome marking, La fille aux cheveux de lin, for example, is now much slower than Debussy’s original for piano. This radically alters the character of the piece but gives the impression of a piano pedal pressed right down.

As for Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition transcription: it has tended to be criticised as a matter of course, but in my opinion it likewise works extremely well most of the time. If we compare Matthews and Ravel, we must also remember how greatly the original piano textures differ. The Pictures at an Exhibition are character pieces, as are Debussy’s Preludes, but Mussorgsky’s material is more like a block, like a plank hewn with an axe. The orchestrator of Debussy must be familiar with Debussy’s own style of orchestration, but with Mussorgsky, all instrumentation devices are permissible. The music of Mussorgsky is, on the other hand, so colourful and provides so much food for the imagination that maybe no transcription can be totally satisfactory. Its strength lies in its Beethovenian, untamed ruggedness. And it is precisely because it is rugged that many well-meaning composers wish to fiddle and meddle with his music. This persistent mania partly explains the vast number of transcriptions, from pure orchestral versions right up to ones for four tubas, 44 pianos or a military choir. Ravel nevertheless succeeded extremely well in his orchestration, because he possessed an exceptional understanding of Mussorgsky’s Russian soul and combined it with his own masterly command of instrumentation. It is generally thought that Russia took Paris by storm in the 1910s with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, but it had actually done so long before that, and the relations between France and Tsarist Russia were in fact very close. Ravel was personally acquainted with Rimsky-Korsakov, and he had a clear conception of the Russian orchestral world. Ravel may have been a refined, reserved aristocrat and a collector of clocks, but he felt a closer affinity for the emotional Russian world than might be imagined.


This concert also features a visualisation by Riitta Nelimarkka of the Debussy Preludes. What are your feelings about combining visualisation and music?

No way is it an easy combination. In itself, music always evokes strong visual associations. But what happens when we are specifically served a visual stimulus? Can the viewer/listener perceive both equally, or, as is often the case in things like crossover projects, does one genre consume the other? How do you balance these elements? In this concert we are trying to seek some answers. There will probably be as many answers as there are people in the hall. Riitta’s art often incorporates veiled references to art history, and thought-provoking layers and themes just as in Debussy’s Preludes. For the visual artist, the Debussy Preludes are especially rewarding in that the titles are somewhat ambiguous.

Some of the paintings by Viktor Hartmann on which the Pictures are based still exist. Listening to the music of Mussorgsky, one might expect to see huge frescoes, but the original paintings are not. They are actually quite humble drawings but they fired Mussorgsky’s astonishingly modern imagination. “Baba Yaga”, for example, is a quaint clock with a pointed roof, a stylisation of the hut on fowl’s legs where Baba Yaga lived in the Russian fairytale. But Mussorgsky the composer immediately had visions of the heated chase to catch the poor witch.

The suite ends with the splendid Great Gate of Kiev, in which the promenade theme tying the work together is finally transformed into a mighty veneration of friendship, life and art. This work is yet another reminder of the enormous impression art made on people in the 19th century; like Mussorgsky, they might often be utterly overwhelmed by visions aroused by, say, an art exhibition or a book.


Why is the fifth piano concerto by Serge Prokofiev so seldom performed?

Some time ago, when I opened the score, it occurred to me that I had never actually heard the concerto, to say nothing of conducting it. It is, I have to say, not readily accessible. The form of the movements is, on closer inspection, in fact very balanced and carefully thought out, but the first impression is to some extent chaotic. I think the tempos are too fast, so the musical material and its meaning remain unclear to the listener. A calmer tempo may help us to understand that the music is nevertheless not altogether without head or tail. For me at least, the fifth concerto has proved to be a fascinating pointillist-futuristic journey.

As a young man Prokofiev was, like Stravinsky, charming and clever but crazy. I’m not quite sure what then happened to him. Stravinsky always adopted a new style on entering a new stage in his life, but Prokofiev never gave his musical grammar a clean sweep; he just went on paring it down and down. The fifth concerto is not even a very late work, but it already reveals a much more enigmatic composer than one might expect from the works of his early period.


Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo

21.4.2016 Blog


Judaism unites with Christianity in Elijah

Each season the FRSO performs one large-scale choral work. How did you arrive this time at Mendelssohn’s Elijah?

It was the Savonlinna Opera Festival’s Artistic Director Jorma Silvasti who suggested it. I’m very pleased we’ve had a chance to do it with precisely the Savonlinna Opera Festival Choir. Elijah is a long work requiring a vast battery of performers, and in this respect there is none better than an opera choir. The choir has a big role, and extreme dynamic effects are required of it. The orchestra, too, is roughly the same size as that of a mid-19th century opera. I only knew bits of Elijah beforehand.

I once heard it right through when I was a student, and though I’m not the sort who easily gets bored, I found it hard going. I tried to listen to it without knowing a thing about what was going on. Consequently, I was in danger of losing my way in the endless Biedermeier forest. Added to which, I seem to recall that it was a church concert, and churches are, unfortunately, not the best possible places for the performance of oratorio: the details, nuances and intimacy get lost. It’s like immersing Rembrandt in a bath.

Elijah is highly reminiscent of an opera: the listener needs to be familiar with the plot. The melodic invention is amazing, the music is fantastically beautiful and cleverly written. At the Helsinki Music Centre we have the advantage that the audience can sit comfortably in a modern hall, read the libretto at the same time and fortify themselves with extortionately-priced refreshments in the interval.

Elijah can also be performed in the language of its premiere, English, but I decided to do it in German because the music of Mendelssohn is sometimes so rounded at the corners that German does it good – a few consonants go a long way to giving it a bit of grit.


As you said, Elijah is often likened to an opera. In what respect is it an operatic work?

Richard Wagner scoffed at Mendelssohn for failing to produce a single decent opera. But to my mind, Elijah sometimes comes strangely close to Wagner’s own Lohengrin – you only need to add a couple of swans. Elijah and Lohengrin were products of the same era, and there are lots of similarities in their orchestral and choral textures. In many ways the part of Elijah is even reminiscent of the Herald in Lohengrin. Added to which, the Old Testament characters are a bit obscure to us, just as remote and difficult to relate to as the characters of Wagner.

True, Elijah does differ from an opera in that it doesn’t have a coherent plot. No opera could survive having a dramatic structure in which the events are totally isolated from one another. And there isn’t a single episode in Elijah that would be sufficient as the plot of an opera.

You can hear, in Elijah, that Mendelssohn respected his Jewish lineage. So it’s a little surprising that at the end, he quotes the Old Testament prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. One cannot help thinking that he wanted to stress that the prophet Elijah was, like John the Baptist, paving the way for Jesus. Though his family had converted to Christianity, Mendelssohn here wanted to reflect on the relationship with God important in Judaism and not the future redemption of mankind. So presumably he gave way to his librettist and the demands of the place where the work was to be premiered.


Mendelssohn raised Bach’s St. Matthew Passion from oblivion in the early 19th century. How is the influence of Bach reflected in Elijah?

There is actually something touching in the way Mendelssohn imitates the St. Matthew Passion. Some of the dramaturgical devices, such as the crowd’s death threats, were inspired by Bach, and the aria Elijah sings before he is taken to heaven in a chariot of fire is almost a copy of the bass aria Ich will Jesum selbst begraben in the St. Matthew Passion. As with Bach, the arias serve to raise the work to a higher philosophical level, whereas the recitatives and choral numbers carry the action forwards. The fact that there is no real narrator, no Evangelist, is a legacy of Handel’s oratorios.

Stravinsky said that good composers don’t borrow, they steal. In this case Mendelssohn stole a functional concept, but it is, of course, also a sincere and neat tribute to Bach and Handel.

Mendelssohn had read his Matthew Passion when he was 14 and was given the manuscript of it as a Christmas present from his grandmother. No mean gift – not many teenagers can sit at home reading the manuscript of the St. Matthew Passion! Sometimes things turn out well for the preservation of a work of art: for where might the St. Matthew Passion have ended up if the original document had been sold to the wrong person?


What are your thoughts on Wagner’s attitude to Mendelssohn?

Wagner did a tremendous amount of damage to Mendelssohn’s reputation. Instead of harping on about Wagner and National Socialism, it would be better to ask whether the fact that Mendelssohn is still not a very popular composer can be attributed to Wagner.

Wagner did say later, in the 1870s, that he had nothing against Jews, but in his opinion the Jews became Germans too soon: despite being hard-working, they were not “spiritually ready”.

Mendelssohn was a typical Jewish artist in the German environment of the early 19th century: he was desperate to assimilate with the German heritage and to feel he was another link in that long tradition.

In other words, Mendelssohn did not choose the same road as many other Jewish composers, headed by Meyerbeer and Offenbach, who did not wish to be part of German culture and moved to France. Mendelssohn was never in his lifetime held in any esteem in France, but all the more greatly in England: the certain Handel-like monumentality of his music appealed to the English of the Victorian era.

Mendelssohn did not correspond to Wagner’s concept of an artist to be taken seriously: he came from a good, educated family and he had no financial worries. He remained calmly above all political upheaval and revolutions. And unlike, say, Berlioz, Liszt or Wagner, he was by nature always extremely cautious and conservative. There was only a few years’ difference in age between Mendelssohn and Wagner, but unlike Wagner, Mendelssohn was a star even as a young man. At the age of thirty, Wagner sent him the score of his early symphony in C major but Mendelssohn never replied. One reason for Wagner’s anti-Semitism was that he felt the success of many composers of Jewish background was his loss. Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn were far more famous and they got well paid. No one knew Wagner, and nowhere did anyone write about his works.

Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo