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

So it’s all about musicianship.

It’s musicianship and it’s not showing off for showing off’s sake, which sometimes can happen in the very big name orchestras, "I play the solo like this today just because I can". That’s not the attitude here. I’ve had some experiences with very big orchestras where it’s so free that you start wondering, what’s the point, where’s the beef? And that can be hard to integrate and do something convincing.

You have to take just what Sibelius wrote and make the most of it, and it will work, mostly, very well

Has anything you’ve done with the orchestra so far really amazed you, or have you just been pleased with it all?

I think probably the best concert for my money that we’ve actually done together has been away, in Spain, in Saragossa, where there’s a very good hall, and we did a Shostakovich Five but with practically no rehearsal, only with the strength of the performance we did here before. That was amazing, because suddenly there was this depth, it was all there, just because the hall was good, and they were also very fired up as well. It was also probably that the piece had worked itself over a period of time. And they really wanted to show what they could do. It was pretty amazing. And in those best experiences for a conductor, from my point of view, it’s just the feeling that you don’t any more have to do anything, you just let them do it.

Because the work has been done?

Yes, or rather the work has fulfilled itself somehow in the consciousness of everybody. But I think everything I’ve done with them so far has actually been a positive experience compared to what I was expecting. It’s quite incredible. It’s obviously working. I just wish we would have even more people listening to us live. The Proms is great…

You didn’t have the worst of it. The wonderful concert with Josep Pons, I’ve never seen fewer people in an audience. Maybe it wasn’t easily sold, though it was a lovely programme.

If someone knew what was sellable they’d make a lot of money, I suppose. The season itself isn’t marketed properly, it seems to me, though I’m no expert in this field.

Interestingly there were a lot more people for the Busoni – the buzz was that there hadn’t been a performance since 1988.

Which in a way gives confidence to put on something like that. We are in a difficult slot on the market in a way, and probably some new thinking and even some new money would do us good in that department.

Instead of which there will be further BBC budget slashes, even for the Proms.

And the orchestra is feeling it as well, which I think is a great shame. For all the great work they do they should be properly supported.

There is an audience for the sort of programmes you’re doing and it’s a young audience. The Rest Is Noise festival at the Southbank brought younger listeners, and the LPO under Jurowski seems to have kept them. How is it in Stockholm and Helsinki?

Stockholm has been a growing tendency. I still think the audience is probably a little bit older, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

I think the PRs’ mistake is to discount the core audience, which will be older.

Exactly. But there have been openings also for younger audiences in Stockholn, and they work pretty well – these six o'clock concerts with just one piece and such like, it does work – despite the total blackout there is in the Swedish press at the moment. They’re not writing anything about classical at all. It’s like total death compared to what happens here.

We’re losing our arts pages here.

Yes, there is the same kind of development but there is still a lot here, both in the papers and online.

And in a concert scene where you’ve got six or seven events a night, you’re never going to cover them all. Did you feel in Birmingham that there was a very loyal core of people? I found that with the talks I give them there – they all come. There’s a real feeling of community.

Yes, it’s a more diffuse picture here, and different kind of target groups. The Birmingham community is a legend – it consists of people who were mostly brought up by Rattle to listen to many different things, and they’ve remained incredibly supportive..

You did a lot of British music in Birmingham – Gilbert and Sullivan, for example. Would you like to do more?

Probably not G&S again. But I did also John Foulds, Constant Lambert, Vaughan Williams symphonies, the obvious Elgars.

Elgar recorded by OramoWas that an interesting test for the Swedes [with whom Oramo has recorded Elgar], who presumably didn’t know the Elgar symphonies well?

I took an approach whereby we took a lot of time discussing the style, not always playing the notes, but going through what is behind them, and I think the results are quite interesting. Because I think they found the style incredibly well, better than you would ever imagine possible from an almost non-existent background. Which tells a lot about Elgar being universal. When you take it to the point of understanding what he’s written, there’s nothing too strange.

The string writing is unbelievable.

So beautiful, the flourishes and divisions.

Do you feel Sibelius is more or less on an even keel, or is that also a challenge every time? Because you must have done that a lot more than Nielsen.

Yes. One of the very best Sibelius performances I’ve ever been involved with was in Rome, with the Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, who played a fantastic Fifth Symphony, and I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I think the Italian musicians, they have this love for small designs, and they brought such beautiful detail. Without the burdens of the past, because when you do Sibelius with a Finnish orchestra, it always strikes you that they play either [the interpretations of conductors] Berglund or Segerstam or Saraste, but not really actually what comes from Sibelius. There are thick layers of stuff which are all adequate and work well, but it’s not what I’m interested in doing.

So you find it difficult to scrape that off?

It’s impossible, actually, because the materials are full of markings and – you should actually just have what the composer wrote, a couple of bowings, and then you work it with the ears, which is what I’m trying to do here – clean materials, no additions, no reorchestration, no altered dynamics…

Because wasn’t it Berglund who said Sibelius needed to be touched up?

I think he was intrinsically wrong, although I admire his imposition – I loved playing for him as a violinist, but I still think his basic thesis was wrong.

Because you think it can still work on its own?

It totally does, but of course you’ve got to have incredibly intelligent musicians to do it, and you’ve got to have the idea as a conductor how you can relate the problems that arise to what’s actually sounding and coming out. But a lot of times Sibelius seems to have meant for his details to be kind of inside, a kind of veiled presence of pedal tones, and to just rip them away like that, to take all the long tones down, it’s too obvious for my taste.

So the fundamental difficulty is getting the layers right.

Paavo BerglundAbsolutely, and that’s what Berglund [pictured right in the 1960s] was trying to do all his career, and he did fantastic work. But there’s no-one else that can follow on that. You have to take just what Sibelius wrote and make the most of it, and it will work, mostly, very well.

It strikes me that – or did, actually, until today when I heard In memoriam, which isn’t a great piece – whether they’re miniatures or full scale works, and there’s an enormous amount, isn’t there, that it’s all beautifully crafted, original, inventive, that he could take a miniature and lavish such attention on it. It doesn’t seem that there’s any bad Sibelius.

Not really, apart from maybe the very early pieces and some of the incredibly late pieces, but no, nothing’s bad.

Or un-individual.

Exactly. But clearly you can see that he was more interested in finishing and polishing some pieces than others, polishing the Fourth Symphony, letting them grow. Some of the miniatures and tone-poems seem somehow a little less loved.

Is it possible to say which are closest to your heart, or is it whatever you’re working on at the time, which is the usual answer?

It’s really hard to say. In terms of pieces by Sibelius everything is good, and if it’s not good, I don’t do it.

And Nielsen?

The same.

So there’s not one symphony that when you come to it you think – ah, this is it?

No, because they all have different characteristics and virtues and all of them have so much to explore. And both Sibelius and Nielsen actually tolerate a lot of different approaches in interpretation, so it’s not that you’re following one certain path.

Tempi don’t have to be exactly as marked…

So long as they grow organically from one another.

And it’s that organic growth which is so fascinating – the second and third movements of Nielsen’s Third Symphony, for instance – the third is like a thicket and I can’t work it out but it flows.

It does, it’s quite weird. The Third Symphony, all the movements except the second are in the same tempo [sings and clicks fingers to keep time]. It makes a unity. But the Third Symphony orchestrally is the least hard of the six to conduct.

There’s still a lot of vigorous string quaver writing which is always on the move and seems so hard.

It is, but it’s much less hard than say the Fifth which is quaver triplets and such, that’s hard.

What is unplayable about the Sixth?

Oh, so much. A lot of the variations are actually terribly hard and uncomfortable.

Should it sound uncomfortable?

No, not Nielsen, I don’t think. Richard Strauss was different. He always wrote extremely difficult textures if he wanted to make the music sound anguished. But Nielsen wasn’t like that.

You’re doing the whole sequence of both sets of symphonies in Stockholm.

I’m not doing everything – I would die. But it’s both composers together, but they only meet once – the Fourths meet in one concert. Otherwise they are put in context which is suitable for each piece. We’re starting with Tchaik Six, Nielsen One, I’ve forgotten, I haven’t thought about it for such a long time. But I think the strength of the Stockholm concept is that it’s on consecutive days, so you can absolutely follow the narrative of both composers from beginning to end. We’ve done things like that before, in 2011 we did a 10 day Mahler festival with a different symphony every day.

With different conductors...

And orchestras. Which was an incredible journey. I did First and Eighth with my own orchestra, and with the Finnish Radio Symphony the Third and Fourth, and there were others too to fill in the gaps. But it’s the strength of an organization like that that we can actually bring together everyone in Scandinavia and create something like that which is totally out of the ordinary.

And after this season here do you have divulgeable plans?

Everything is not yet quite ready, but I don’t think there will be a season that’s quite as tight as this thematically. There will be big and small pieces and something slightly unusual, but not linked together.

Is there anything in the contemporary sphere which you particularly want to devote time to with this orchestra?

We do so much anyway, and contemporary music nowadays is such a wide field, but just recently I did a studio recording of a really interesting piece by a Latvian composer, Onutė Narbutaitė, she is interesting and writes beautifully for orchestra, you hear fantastic things. That has yet to be broadcast. Interesting things are happening in the Baltic. It’s good…

And there’s no longer an orthodoxy of style.

Sakari OramoIt’s good – I enjoy the situation now much more than I did 20 years ago. But in a way my role as a chief conductor is, yes, to occasionally bring in new composers we’ve not heard of – and there will be new works in some of my programmes next season - but also to take care of the orchestra’s ground repertoire, that’s the most important part of my work at the moment. And I don’t know if it’s the right choice, but it feels right at the moment.

Well, I remember when David Robertson conducted Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, they hadn’t played it for 15 years, so it’s possible to hear those sort of works afresh.

It’s good for them. When I was with Finnish Radio as chief conductor, I did so many premieres, now I don’t have to do so many.

It was sometimes an obligation rather than a pleasure?

There’s always the good ones and you can never know when you start.

So when you start on a piece and it really isn’t up to scratch, you have to be professional…

Of course, you make the most of it, and try to bring out whatever there is – there’s always something, whether it’s enough is another question. I hate just to be patronising, there is fantastic composing going on, possibly more than some decades before, but it’s almost a complete joke to keep track of what’s happening, and the publishers are doing their job in trying to promote their composers, there’s only so much one musician can do and it does grow with age, actually it gets smaller, one’s capacity.

I suppose the idea of Brett Dean being composer in residence this season means there’s more connection with one figure.

Yes, it’s very welcome. That’s a wonderful opportunity for us as well as for him actually to get working with the same musicians.

So there’s nothing you particularly want to do?

I don’t have anything in my mind just now.

You’re so focused on the Nielsen.

Yes, it’s quite hard.

These are very tough programmes.

They are. Getting tougher and tougher, actually. This one’s relatively easy but the next three [starting with Wednesday night's concert] are really, really hard.

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