Nov 29, 2013

In Conversation with Jukka-Pekka Saraste

You have grown up with classical music. Did you feel the desire to become a conductor early on?

Yes, this desire was there all along. When listening to my first record – it was Mozart’s Symphony No 39 – it was clear to me that I would rather make music with an orchestra, not just on the piano or the violin. I was six or seven years old then and already played the piano. I improvised a lot and learned small pieces and when my parents realized I have perfect pitch they did all they could to support my musical education.  So I had piano lessons at first and violin lessons later.

When did you stand in front of an orchestra for the first time?

That was also quite early. I was only 12 or 13 years old. The conductor of the student orchestra I was concertmaster of, asked me if I would like to give it a try. I was totally excited about the possibilities conducting offered to me. The first work I conducted was actually the Pizzicato Polka by Strauß (laughs). Later I had my own student orchestra and that was really a very good way to study and continue to learn conducting.

All over the world, the Sibelius Academy where you studied later is regarded as “talent pool” for conductors. What was special about studying there?

There were two things in particular. On the one hand, we could rehearse there with an ensemble consisting of professional musicians. From them, we always got a very direct and good feedback on our conducting. That helped a lot. On the other hand it was Jorma Panula’s teaching style.  He was not very strict regarding conducting  technique, that was of secondary importance to him. Much more important for him was doing everything with your own personality. He did not offer ready-made solutions but wanted everyone to find their own solution based on the expression of their personalities. Moreover, at the Sibelius Academy playing the piano did not have the same priority as in other countries. Many of the conducting students were orchestra musicians who could capitalize on their experience in the orchestra. When having played in an orchestra yourself, you have for instance an idea about how much time should be used on certain things during rehearsal. And Panula’s rule always was: Don’t talk, show everything. The less you talk, the better.  But orchestra traditions also differ widely. Some orchestras need a lot of talking and explaining, but in Scandinavia and in Finland in particular, the “talking conductor” is not tolerated at all. When talking altogether, then you have to say something new, something no-one knows yet.

What constitutes a good rehearsal in your point of view?

When you go somewhere as a guest conductor, you have to convey an image of the repertoire first or let’s say: paint a picture. You have to offer an interpretation. And this picture or interpretation has to convince the musicians so that they get interested. This especially applies to the famous works known to everyone. You have to show: I know what I want. The most important, especially for a young conductor, is to have a strong will and then you have to stick to it and not accept compromise. This is really difficult for a young conductor, especially with regard to the well-known works. It is of course wholly different when you have a piece no-one knows. Then, you have to organize primarily and make clear how the piece works. But with Beethoven, Brahms and Sibelius it is really all about interpretation.

Which aspect of conducting do you consider most essential?

The main thing is to find your own sound. Sound is expression, an expression of the music. Each composer has his own sound and the conductor should be the advocate of the composer and his sound. With a poor advocate the best composer will sound poor. And it is most important to stay true to the work.

Is there a conductor who impressed you in particular? Which teachers or mentors made a lasting mark on you?

I have watched many conductors and I was very lucky to have teachers such as Jorma Panula and Paavo Berglund.  For me however, the conductor per se is not important but his interpretation of certain works. It was very impressive to experience Bruno Walter with Schubert or Paavo Berglund with Sibelius and Shostakovich. These were my first experiences with great conductors. Meanwhile, I rarely attend concerts. You have so much music in your head there is almost no room left. But a young conductor should go to concerts and rehearsals a lot, as you can learn an incredibly large amount there.

You have been chief conductor and guest conductor of many renowned orchestras all over the world. Since 2011 you have been chief conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra. What is characteristic for this orchestra? Do German orchestras have specific features that are especially striking in comparison to other (foreign) orchestras?

I believe that the first encounter with an orchestra is the most important.  You can feel quite soon if there is a potential for collaboration. And I am more than content collaborating with the WDR Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra plays and reacts really fabulously. When I compare German and Scandinavian orchestras, I find that Scandinavian orchestras react very fast, sometimes maybe even too  fast . German orchestras need a little more time to shape the sound. But as to my opinion some kind of globalization has taken place amongst orchestras and they do not have so much individual character any more.  The musicians have all studied at various music academies at home and abroad and play in a very similar fashion. I believe it would be good for the orchestras to establish academies of their own in order to give themselves more identity again.

You have a special concern for contemporary music. In which way is the contemporary repertoire challenging for a conductor?

Each conductor needs his own technique for learning a score. I have worked a lot on my own technique for over 20 years, on how to organize all the information in my head. And I have noticed that contemporary music in the 80s or late 70s was far more complex than today. For that music you really needed a serious technique to get it organized. If you think about e. g. the early works of Lindberg, they were incredibly complicated.  Today there is more playfulness, more musicality. One could accordingly say that today’s contemporary music is easier to study. Another reason for this is that today’s composers understand much better how orchestras work and how we communicate with orchestras.

Besides contemporary music you also champion Nordic composers, amongst others you recorded the entire symphonies of Sibelius and Nielsen with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Can you establish this repertoire with German orchestras as well?

Nielsen is very problematic in Germany and also in the Netherlands. I can understand this as he is similar to Brahms, but he is rather considered here as a “poor Brahms”. It is a little different with Sibelius. I actually do a lot of Sibelius with the WDR Symphony. In order to understand him, you have to devote yourself to his later works, since whereas his earlier and famous works such as Finlandia have a very nationalistic stamp, he develops a wholly different style later. My favorite Sibelius symphonies are Nos. 4, 7 and 6. And also Nielsen’s personality is more distinct in his Symphonies No. 4 and 5. These are arguably his best.

In November, you will give a master-class together with the WDR Symphony Orchestra for the first time. What is important to you with regard to teaching?

It is essential for me that a conductor brings along a great motivation for music and for the individual works. Without such a strong motivation one cannot learn. The technique always has to bow to the musical expression.  In all master-classes I have done so far, I have asked the young conductors: What do you want? What are your feelings, which sound do you wish to achieve? There are lots of young conductors who think their conducting technique has to be absolutely perfect.  It is important, it is indispensable to learn this. But in the end the expression has to be right.

Did these considerations play a role in choosing the repertoire?

Yes, exactly. Beethoven is in particular for the interpretation. Each conductor has to deal with Beethoven inevitably and needs to have an idea of the performance tradition.  Beyond that, what one does with the music is entirely individual. And Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks is of course very good for precision and learning good technique.

Which advice would you like to give to conductors who are at the beginning of their professional life?

Young conductors should only choose works they are comfortable with and not experiment too much. At first you need to find your personality, your strengths. Actually, the way I see it this also applies to soloists. Later on you can try out a bit more. It is always difficult for young conductors. Everything is new, the works are new, the orchestras are new. So it is most important to feel at ease with the repertoire.

You mentioned Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 earlier. Is this such a “feelgood piece” for you?

Yes, this work has accompanied me all my life. The 39th is my favorite Mozart symphony and I still conduct it frequently today and with pleasure.