sat 08/08/2020

theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Sakari Oramo | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Sakari Oramo

theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Sakari Oramo

A Finn firing up the London concert scene talks Nielsen, Sibelius and concert halls

Sakari Oramo at the BarbicanAll casual images of Oramo by Benjamin Ealovega

Rattle and the Berliners went home at the beginning of the week with vine-leaves in their hair. There's now something else to celebrate. Exactly one week on from the second concert in their Sibelius cycle, the Barbican hosted even more of an all-out stunner, starting with Sibelius no less compellingly conducted than the best of last week’s symphonic cycle and ending with a performance of the "Inextinguishable" Fourth Symphony by this year’s other 150th birthday composer, the great Dane Carl Nielsen, which electrified from start to finish.

In his first ever concert with a major London orchestra back in 2011, Finn Sakari Oramo gave an interpretation of Sibelius’s Third Symphony which Rattle last week couldn’t touch for depth and strangeness. That concert – also featuring his wife Anu Komsi in Sibelius’s creation myth Luonnotar and songs by Kaija Saariaho, as well as a slice of his favoured English music in Bax’s Tintagel – was enough to convince the BBC Symphony Orchestra to make him their next chief conductor. The relationship has blazed so far, and this season offers superlative programming to go with the six Nielsen symphonies.

Sakati OramoWe met at Maida Vale after Oramo and the orchestra had spent a long day rehearsing for the third concert in the series. We chatted first about Garrick Ohlsson’s stupendous performance of the Busoni Piano Concerto in the second back in December – a definite highlight of 2014 – and about the replacement for Yevgeny Sudbin, Federico Colli, who had been at the rehearsal of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto (“he has a big imagination, which that piece needs”). Then the interview began. It took me a while to realize not to jump in too much while Oramo (pictured above at the Proms by Chris Christodoulou) revealed his Finnishness in characteristic pauses for thought (watch any Kaurismäki film if you don't know what I mean).

DAVID NICE: Did you devise the programmes for all six concerts?


So you clearly wanted works from around the periods when the Nielsen symphonies were composed?

I did. And Rachmaninov is somehow a watershed figure in all of this, that’s why he’s so present in the Spring Cantata and Third and Fourth Piano Concertos. Not because he would be especially akin with Nielsen, but his life somehow followed a similar path, if you think about going from the world of the First Piano Concerto and Nielsen’s First Symphony to Nielsen’s Sixth or Rachmaninov’s Fourth Concerto, they both are on a similar track of blossom to reduction and heartfelt drama to irony and all that, they take a similar emotional path.

What struck me from the start – I’ve been teaching  a course linked with the symphonies – was that while I’d thought, it will get really interesting when we get to the “Four Temperaments” [the Second Symphony], but actually the First is already a fully fledged work of great individuality, isn’t it? It grabs you by the throat right at the start.

Yes, immediately, though not all of it works so well. From the Second on everything works.

What do you think are the weaknesses of the First?

Nielsen gurning in his youthIn some way it just feels like Nielsen’s found this fire which he plays with, and it just goes off into several directions at the same time, which in a symphonic work isn’t necessarily so good [Nielsen being prankish in his youth pictured left, courtesy of the National Library Copenhagen]. And I also feel the finale doesn’t somehow live up to the expectations of the other three movements.

Do you think it’s fair to say it’s a direct offshoot of Brahms in a way?

Absolutely, oh yes. There are other influences too. But Brahms was still very near, he had died just a couple of years earlier.

And even with the Third – which I’ve been listening to today and I’m going to teach it tonight – there’s a lot more unexpected, very contemporary harmonic twists that make you realize that despite the occasional romantic colours it's very much a 20th century symphony.

Totally 20th century, yes. And then it’s got this uncanny Elgarian swagger in the last movement, which is totally unexpected.

Well, do you know when we covered the Second in class last month, something about the way the theme in the finale transforms itself into the march struck me, and it’s exactly the same theme as the trio of Elgar’s Second Pomp and Circumstance March.

Sure, I hadn’t got that actually.

I don’t suppose Nielsen knew it.

He might have. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nielsen would have known Elgar, because he must have played it as an orchestral musician. I don’t know exactly what the history of that is. There must be some connection there.

It’s wonderful to space out the cycle through the year, and the fact that you’ve got works from roughly the same period as each symphony, does that make you think more about the context? I’m fascinated by how many great works first appeared, for example, in 1911, around the time of  the Third.

Of course there would be all the Second Viennese School too. But Nielsen has so little to do with that – he wasn’t so interested. And also one motivation behind this programme this week is that I wanted to do one of the six as a normal concert – traditional overture, concerto, symphony. And the Third Nielsen somehow suits that approach best because it’s the longest, the most substantial and it lives well with other music, which can’t be said for some of the other Nielsen symphonies which are quite hard to couple with anything.

I’ve never thought of the “Four Temperaments” going into a first half before, because although in actual timing it’s quite short it feels, particularly in your performance, as if it covers a lot of ground.

It can work in a first half, especially with the Busoni Concerto in the second.

Yes, and it did, but that was a generous concert. [BBCSO General Manager] Paul Hughes likes to do four-work concerts, that’s how you started, isn’t it, with the Sibelius/Bax/Saariaho programme?

He does. He’s never opposed to that. I think it’s a good way of putting together pieces that would be too short in their own right in one half, so adding couplings like that can help.

Next page: lessons learned from Nielsen and the BBC Symphony sound


Well, this is a good case in point – I can’t remember ever having heard [Sibelius’s tone-poem] The Dryad, with which you’re starting, in a concert programme before, where would it go? It’s a short piece but covers a wealth of ideas

…which all fly past very quickly. I don’t know actually why Sibelius wrote it and what he was thinking. It feels like an exercise, for something like the Third Symphony, perhaps – it could be drop-off material from the Third.

It sounds closer to the world of the Fourth.

Sure, also, yes. Of course there is an Op 45 No 2, the Dance Intermezzo, which you could also include, but in this instance I didn’t feel it would add anything specific, so I chose not to do it.

Oramo's Nielsen symphonies recordingThis must be a very rich year for you in that you’ve conducted the Sibelius symphonies many times and also the Nielsens – I remember when you were principal conductor of the CBSO you did a wonderful Fourth and Fifth. But suddenly to find them in conjunction, has it taught you anything?

The more you think about Nielsen and the more you approach the music, the more you appreciate the incredible imagination and skill, and the more you also wonder why he hasn’t become such a regular feature in the concert repertoire as Sibelius has in most other countries. I recorded all six Nielsen symphonies in Stockholm [with his other orchestra, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic], which was a good preparation for this run. That’s an orchestra with a long Nielsen tradition, but it hasn’t had much exposure to the symphonies in the last 10 or 15 years. What has it taught me? Even things that seem impossible to perform are solvable in Nielsen. There’s stuff in the Sixth that is completely impossible, actually, on paper, but somehow you can get past it.


By ignoring the constant quest for note-perfect-ness, more to look at the shape and the notes will take care of themselves.

And the atmosphere and the spirit.

Yes, crazy, crazy spirit.

Here you have players who are famous for sight-reading anything quickly. Does that make a difference?

Of course it does, everything is quick and also with the BBC Symphony it’s very inspiring because they respond immediately to everything [clicks fingers], nothing seems impossible.

It seems to me that first concert with Luonnotar, and your wife [soprano Anu Komsi], that was the best I’ve ever heard it, unearthly-beautiful, and Bax, the Sibelius Third and some Saariaho. Did that feel major to you or just another concert?

Just another concert. It was a good concert, I enjoyed it. But I was extremely surprised to be asked to come here as chief conductor after that. I think it was just a question of good timing as well. But it was the first time I ever conducted a major London orchestra. I’d only ever worked with the London Sinfonietta, and that’s 20 years ago.

You’d appeared at the Albert Hall…

Oramo and Jansen at the Last Night of the PromsWith CBSO and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Stockholm Phil, yes [and now he's conducted his first Last Night with the BBC Symphony Orchestra - pictured left as violinist with Janine Jansen by Chris Christodoulou]. So it was a funny situation. But of course I’m very grateful that it could happen.

So what did you immediately think about the sound of the orchestra and what do you think you can do with them now?

I was pretty impressed actually with their sound and attitude already then, and I think much of it actually owes to Bělohlávek and his work. His aesthetic background is I feel somehow similar to mine. He’s a string player, a cellist [Oramo is a violinist], and he’s got this middle-European sound ideal, which I still find works in the orchestra and I’m happy to build on it.

He transformed the string sound beyond belief, particularly with his Mahler series.

Yes. And I think it’s the first time I’ve come to an orchestra with a sorted string section. Always before I had to work a lot with the strings and now it’s like it’s all there. Of course there’s always things to do, but in the big picture it’s a luxury to have this adeptness to all sorts of different things.

I suppose the problem for us is that the Barbican is not a place where you can really get depth. Were you in Birmingham [as  the CBSO’s chief conductor between Rattle and Andris Nelsons]  when the new hall was up and running?

Yes. Now even Paris has a fantastic hall. I had a look on the internet at the opening concert last night. Of course you can’t gauge the sound but it looked fairly impressive. I think London is lagging very much behind in that sense.

It’s a shame that plans for a new concert hall for the BBC Symphony in White City folded.

Well, would it have been ideal? I’m not sure.

What do you have to do in the Barbican to adjust?

I haven’t actually paid any attention to it, you just do what you do, and we only have rehearsals there on the day, which is far from ideal. The other orchestra I work with, the Stockholm Philharmonic, rehearse in their own hall.

A beautiful 1920s building.

It’s a good acoustic, it’s been recently improved by some minor adjustments. It’s a whole different ball game. I admire what this orchestra does, in this situation [at Maida Vale, for rehearsals], it’s very diffuse, it’s very hard to tell what people are actually doing, and probably the worst problem is it’s very tiring for the ear. I’m probably not used to it, but I stop hearing detail, I just hear a wash, which can be difficult.

So you mean you’re straining with your ear to try and hear more?

Yes, I think that’s the process. So in these conditions this orchestra is doing a marvellous job.

Oramo and the BBCSOYou’ve already done great work with other symphonies – the Shostakovich Five, the Beethoven Eroica – that seemed to catch light. You seem very genial with the players. Are you relaxed with them?

I feel one of them. In a way, of course, as a string player, I am. It’s a terrible waste of energy not to connect with players. Somehow the thing that makes an orchestra click is not necessarily being told exactly what to do, it’s rather being enticed to do something and without them even knowing ending up somewhere nice. That’s the best situation. Of course you’ve got to work up to it somehow.

Do you give them a certain amount of freedom? I mean, you’ve got a fantastic wind department, I think they’re possibly the best in the country.

That’s really good to hear, because I really like them, it’s a fantastic section. Of course I take everything they can give. But somehow it always slots into my thoughts anyway. I don’t find a big discrepancy between giving wind players freedom to play their solos and still integrating it into a convincing hall. But yes, we all breathe the same air.

Next page: special concerts, Finns hidebound in Sibelius and contemporary music

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