INTERVIEW WITH HANNU LINTU REGARDING THE FRSO’S PROGRAMME ON THE 15TH OF MARCH 2017
Hannu Lintu: “There’s a little bit of Joonas Kokkonen in every Finn”
Hannu Lintu – I remember when I was a student, we took it for granted that figures like Joonas Kokkonen, Einar Englund and Erik Bergman were part of the Finnish canon. Yet their music seems to have more or less disappeared from concert programmes. What exactly happened to this generation?
In our student days, these composers were still alive. They were Joonas, Einar and Erik, and we’d see them weekly at maybe the Academy or in the interval of concerts at Finlandia [Hall]. Now they are Kokkonen, Englund and Bergman, and their music is pretty seldom heard. I think it’s a question not only of media sexiness but also that here in Finland people nowadays have a surprisingly narrow view of musical styles.
Very much to the fore in Finland at the moment is a post-avant-gardist trend, meaning the one nowadays represented by the first Korvat auki [Ears Open] generation, for example. These and a few other composers have become the prevailing canon, partly also because they have unquestionably, and deservedly, won international recognition. Finnish musicians, audiences and the media are strongly oriented towards these composers and their music has become the full, and maybe somewhat distorted picture of the present day. Another reason is probably that Finnish society has changed a lot since the 1960s and 70s. This is of course audible in music, and visible in the type of art people value. Urbanisation and Europeanisation are reflected in preferences in every walk of life.
Kokkonen avoided taking a stand on anything in his symphonies. They are unrelentingly objective; yet even so, they are part of the Finnish soulscape at its purest. They still are. In the world we live in today, everything has to be easy to fathom. We like “stories”. A terrible fuss has to be made of everything that was once considered so normal. It’s worst in politics, but the arts haven’t altogether escaped. Kokkonen’s expression and essence are not compatible with this world. Tweeting would have been a nightmare for him, I’m sure.
What sort of symphonic tradition does Kokkonen’s fourth symphony belong to?
Joonas Kokkonen’s technical skill is astounding. All the musical material is based on tiny little cells, just a few notes. This links him with the tradition represented by Beethoven and Sibelius. Kokkonen felt an affinity with Sibelius’s fourth symphony, not only because of its atmosphere but also its mode of composition. This extreme economy is also the reason why Kokkonen’s symphonies last only around 20 minutes. The material just does not lend itself to more, and being a wise composer, he didn’t want to force the structure to be any longer. For Kokkonen, the symphony was a philosophical state of mind rather than a specific form. This, as I understand it, is what he meant by thinking more broadly in saying that symphonies were already being composed before anyone ever invented the term ‘symphony’.
Kokkonen is, to my mind, one of our greatest symphonists since Sibelius. His four symphonies really speak to us Finns but are a challenge internationally: when I try now and then to suggest Kokkonen for a French or American orchestra, I’m met with mute amazement, even animosity. The world of Kokkonen is really difficult for a non-Finn to understand, and it also shows how difficult it may be for others to get inside the Finnish soulscape. Though I said just now that Finland has changed, I have to admit that there’s still a little bit of Joonas Kokkonen in each and everyone of us.
Tonight’s concert ends with the Prokofiev cycle you’re doing with Olli Mustonen. What are your thoughts on the five-concerto project now ending?
It’s been quite an education for me. When Prokofiev wrote his first piano concerto, the critics pointed out that it was like football: a mere stripling in a sailor suit showing how clever he was. Performances of the Prokofiev concertos are indeed often reminiscent of a sort of sporting event. But Olli has demonstrated that Prokofiev doesn’t need to be football or acrobatics. Playing him at a more moderate tempo begins to bring out the ingenious layering of the harmonies and details. For the first time in my career I have felt at ease doing the Prokofiev concertos in this project, and not hysterical as may sometimes be the case. Rehearsing, performing and recording these concertos have in turn also helped us to develop the accompaniments and find the right balance in the Helsinki Music Centre Hall.
The fact that all the works by one composer in a particular genre are performed within a short period of time also counts for a lot. It always reveals something new about the composer. Prokofiev travelled an enormous distance in his five piano concertos, just as in his piano sonatas – or his symphonies. When you yourself travel that same distance, you gain a broader understanding, too.
The second piano concerto is unusual in that Prokofiev wrote it twice.
The first version did indeed burn to ashes in the turmoil of the revolution in 1917 and Prokofiev rewrote it from memory some ten years later. Some people heard both versions, both the performance in Pavlovsky in 1913 and in Paris in 1924, but their accounts are strangely contradictory. Prokofiev was still young when he wrote the new version, but a much more experienced composer. This must be audible in the music. And the situation must surely have been a chance to prove how talented and above all how modern he was at the age of 21, without anyone being able to check things.
The picture of Prokofiev is often that of an obnoxious, spoilt Wunderkind who had everything presented to him on a plate. But there is often something inexplicable in his music, and deep tragedy. The shocking strains of the second piano concerto may have something to do with real events. Because while he was composing it, he received a message from his best friend, Maximilian Schmidthof: “Serioza, some news: I’ve shot myself!” Prokofiev hurried to his friend’s home, but in vain. Schmidthof’s body was not found in the forest until days later. How this tragedy affected the work in progress, and what maybe remained ten years later is difficult to estimate.
Bohuslav Martinů is said to have been a very peculiar person. What, would you say, is the relationship between a composer’s personality and his music? Does it matter to the performer?
Martinů really was a bit peculiar. In retrospect, it’s reckoned he had Asperger’s syndrome. It would appear that he was also permanently injured after falling head first off an upper-floor balcony onto concrete while at Tanglewood. Be that as it may, he was infinitely shy, retiring and antisocial. He suffered from stage fright of the worst possible order and was totally unable to accept congratulations. Nor did he know how to teach: the students in his lectures at Princetown just listened to records, and within six months, all his students apart from Charles Rosen and Michael Steinberg had vanished.
Martinů is, to my mind, one of the very greatest symphonists of the 20th century. Music by him was performed a tremendous lot in the 1940s and 50s, especially in the USA, at times less, but it now seems to be coming back into favour. Living in the United States must have been schizophrenic for him. He secretly hated the country that had rescued him and taken him in as a refugee, and what is more commissioned five symphonies. Many would have become introverted for less.
The music of Martinů is in its own introvert way nevertheless very emotional. This fourth symphony, for example, its mood tying in with the end of the Second World War, is very boisterous, optimistic and sunny. Even so, I get the feeling the composer is trying to hide. There is, as it were, a sort of deliberate wall between the music and the user.
What do the fourth symphonies of Kokkonen and Martinů have in common?
Although the textures differ, there is a strong feeling of horizontality in the music of both. And they both begin composing with little motifs. There’s also something similar in their use of stringed instruments: mighty, broad chorales always follow the great culminations in the movements as soothing gestures. I reckon both had absorbed this device from Shostakovich.
You don’t have to be born in Vienna or Hamburg to be a great symphonist. Martinů came from the village of Polika on the border of Bohemia and Moravia and Kokkonen from Iisalmi. But you can hear the cultural differences: you can tell at once from Martinů’s limping syncopations and colourful dancing that he was a Czech, whereas Kokkonen’s terse, even gait is recognisably a Finnish trait. We may note similar differences in the films of, say, the great Czech director Milos Forman and Aki Kaurismäki.
Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo
INTERVIEW WITH HANNU LINTU REGARDING THE FRSO’S PROGRAMME ON THE 10TH OF FEBRUARY 2017
Hannu Lintu: “Each movement of the Eroica is a picture of Bonaparte”
Hannu Lintu – Igor Stravinsky chose a subject from ancient mythology for his ballet Orpheus. How does he handle it?
Orpheus gives a very laconic account of the main points in the story. Yet it already comes close to the Stravinskyan world in which the connection between the music and the events is beginning to blur. This is not objective, descriptive ballet music in the manner of, say, Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev. It does not overly, noisily imitate emotions; rather, the music of the ballet seems to turn inwards in its expression.
Orpheus was not a particularly heroic figure; he was the musician who was given a lyre by his father, Apollo to pass the time away. The lad had a natural flair for music and became a troubadour who charmed humans and animals with his playing. It’s said that he often moved his listeners and colleagues to tears. Nowadays he’d be going great guns in Vain elämää [The Best Singers].
Stravinsky’s musical style reminds me of a story about Konstantin Stanislavski coaching an actor who was supposed to be in great pain. First the actor wrung his hands and tore his hair out, but Stanislavski said it would be much more convincing if he just walked round whistling quietly to himself with his hands in his pockets. Stravinsky beautifully describes little movements of the subconscious. His evocations of physical events are likewise minimalist: in the scene, for example, where Orpheus and the Angel of Death descend into Hades, the music is really peculiar and wobbly, just like someone cautiously stepping down a slippery staircase. Whereas Tchaikovsky would have brought on a deluge of chromatic scales, string tremolos and brass, Stravinsky writes very thinly. This does, however, have its own musical logic.
Orpheus belongs to Stravinsky’s middle period, customarily known as his Neoclassical. But does ‘Neoclassicism’ describe Stravinsky’s 1940s style very well, would you say?
Neoclassicism is a problematic concept in the sense that people tend to lazily lump together all sorts of things with it. It may mean the recycling of some specific, recognisable material (in the way that Stravinsky used, say, works by Pergolesi), or that the music sounds like a stylistic distortion of Baroque or Classical. It may also mean sonorous or structural clarity in general. Then again, ‘Neoclassical’ tends to be attached to something that is clearly behind the times, such as a composer who writes triads in the 1960s. At its broadest, anything not derived from the tradition created by Arnold Schönberg is bundled up with it.
Orpheus really does have certain Baroque gestures and Baroque-like rhythms even though it does not use works by any particular composer as its material. For example, the scene with two oboes and a harp describing Orpheus playing in the Underworld could be from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion; so could the scene in which the furies beg Orpheus to go on playing. Stravinsky invented an interesting concept for this work: the air de danse that imitates the Baroque da capo aria in form.
In this concert we’ll be hearing the concerto for harp and orchestra by Kaija Saariaho for the first time in Finland. How does Saariaho use the harp in her music?
It’s difficult to imagine music by Saariaho without a harp. It’s like a stream running right through her orchestral music, either as a timbre or as an audible element. A pattern that passes up and down is one of Kaija’s trademarks. Many orchestral instruments have a fairly narrow range, but the harp has a handy six-and-a-half octaves, so music written for it can travel through the octaves without the timbre changing.
It seems to me that the harp, piano and percussions are the backbone for the other events in her music. Then there is often a timbral texture made up of long string notes and continually changing colour. The stringed and percussion instruments add clarity and pointillism to this.
Harpists like playing Saariaho, because she understands the instrument and the way it works. Which is why Xavier de Maistre wanted her, specifically, to compose a concerto. Because the harp’s pedal system is quite complicated and many composers, even experienced ones, write music for the harp that is almost impossible or terribly difficult to play. Worst of all is when a player faced with an impossible part stamps the pedals in a panic like a driver in the Tour de France. This doesn’t happen in Kaija’s music.
This concerto can be played without amplifying the solo instrument, because Saariaho makes the harp sound easily above the orchestra. She often organises it so that the orchestra acts as a sort of sounding board for the solo instrument: the harp plays a motif, and as the sound fades, we hear an artificial echo of the notes in the orchestra. There are lots of windows in the orchestral texture that let the harp through.
Beethoven’s Eroica symphony is one of the landmarks of symphonic literature. In what respects was it a revolutionary work?
The Eroica is revolutionary yet it nevertheless keeps within the format of its day: Beethoven wanted not to destroy but to develop and expand. The third symphony is simultaneously Classical and Romantic; it ends one era and begins another. It’s difficult to find any other work in which the hinge between two periods in musical history is so clearly visible and audible.
One thing that shocked Beethoven’s contemporaries in the Eroica was its length. Carl Czerny, a pupil of Beethoven’s, is said to have heard one listener mutter: “I’d give a Kreutzer if only it’d stop”. (The offer was not worth very much, since one Kreutzer corresponded to about a quarter of the price of the concert ticket.) The critics, too, virtually went out of their minds because it lasted for nearly an hour, accustomed as they were to short, clear-cut, inoffensive works. The Eroica heralded an era of mammoth works. Added to which, Beethoven had composed a work so difficult to fathom that it needed to be heard several times before it disclosed its secret. This violated the very essence of the symphony to date.
As a construct, the symphony is astoundingly perfect. If it were an aeroplane built in 1804, it really would fly. A huge number of sketches for the Eroica have been preserved that show just how thorough Beethoven was. For anyone interested in how he worked, the Eroica sketchbooks are a fund of invaluable information. Having once hammered his theme into shape with tremendous effort, he went straight on to fashion the middle section, which he called mitte Gedanke (middle ideas). The unusual thing is that all the time, he was writing a single melodic line: the harmonies were in his head. Then came the Durchführung, the development. From then onwards everything was easier – all he had to do was build the bridges between these elements. The Eroica Durchführung was at the time the longest in the repertoire, and it is still one of the longest in symphonic literature.
The Eroica also begins a new chapter in orchestration: Beethoven acquired an interest in the French horn. He got hold of all the articles written about it and interviewed the best French horn players of his day. The French horn had previously been used in symphonies to produce various idiomatic toots, but Beethoven wanted to know whether it could do anything else. The Eroica has three horns instead of two. As a consequence of Beethoven’s inventiveness, the French horn would then gradually become the symphony orchestra’s real phallic symbol and one that, via Brahms and Schumann, reached its apex in the works of Mahler and Richard Strauss. The clarinets also got a bigger role in the Eroica than in any other symphony composed before. The true soul of the symphony is nevertheless the oboe: for this Beethoven reserved the most important solos of all.
Also casting a certain revolutionary aura over the symphony is the original dedicatee: Napoleon. There is no doubt at all that each movement of the Eroica is a picture of Bonaparte. The subject is not in any way surprising, because Beethoven had been inspired by the teachings of France’s great revolution long before he composed the symphony. It is true that Beethoven had, in a fit of rage, scratched the name of the symphony, “INTITULATA BONAPARTE” out of the title page of the manuscript (i.e. Beethoven did not tear the page in half, as legend would have it). But closer examination of the page reveals the text “GESCHRIEBEN AUF BONAPARTE” written in pencil at the bottom. Either he added this later or he had never scratched it out. This page, reflecting indecision, in Beethoven’s manuscript admirably symbolises the ambivalent atmosphere in Europe in the early 19th century of which Napoleon said: “Everybody has loved me and hated me; everyone has been for me and against me by turns.”
So the title was changed to Eroica at the publication stage, but Beethoven never denied his source of inspiration. The symphony is an almost fanatic expression of his admiration for Napoleon. He saw in Napoleon a reflection of himself, a genius who rose to greatness from relatively humble origins. It is no coincidence that in the finale of the Eroica Beethoven used the theme from the ballet Prometheus he had composed a few years earlier: for Prometheus is about a titan who stole fire from the gods. The Eroica inspired by Napoleon tells of man and humanity. Beethoven has deliberately set God aside; he would be returning to Him in his ninth symphony.
Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo
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