Last update:
Feb 8, 2020


My father’s family comes from Denmark. The family moved to Northern Finland through Norway. The old family name is Sunnarborg, which my grandfather translated into the more Finnish version, Saraste. The family in Northern Finland thrived under the influence of a conservative, protestant religious community. Families were large. My father had seven brothers and two sisters. My father, who also fought in the war, was a teacher by profession. Artistic by nature, he embraced the visual arts and literature.

My mother’s family is from Central Finland. Her father was known for his child-like enthusiasm and lively character. He was the church organist, and music meant the world to him. My mother was a pianist and later also a choir conductor. She brought balance and unity to our family.

In 1961, when I was five years old, we moved from Oulu in Northern Finland to Lahti, one of the central winter sports cities in Finland. At the age of 5, I started attending the symphony concerts of Lahti City Orchestra, first with my parents, later by myself. In a city of sports enthusiasts, no one thought much about a little boy with perfect pitch and a violin case. I listened to records, and before long, I grabbed my mother’s knitting needle and started conducting. Hearing a recording of Mozart’s Symphony no. 39, a gift on my 7th birthday, was the single most pivotal experience. I left my birthday guests to play by themselves and listened to the symphony undistracted. The dramatic fanaticism of the symphony was immense. I believe this was the experience which made me choose to become a musician.

After the World War, Lahti had become a Vyborgian city. Vyborg is close to St. Petersburg becoming a part of Russia after the war. It was multicultural, and Finland’s most international city. The Vyborg conservatory had moved to Lahti, and it was my first music school. There still was an atmosphere of old Vyborg and St. Petersburg about it. Conservative Russian style study methods were used, as there were still were many Russian artists, like pianist Sergei Kulanko and singer Eugenia Antonov.
My first instrument was the piano, the all-around instrument of music. The violin was introduced quite accidentally during my piano studies when a famous violin teacher was engaged at the conservatory, and they wanted me to study with him. He was Heimo Haitto from Vyborg, a pupil of Boris Sirpo, who had won the British Council Of Music’s violin competition in London when he was 13 years old. In the USA Haitto had performed as a soloist, for example with the orchestras of John Barbirolli and Eugene Ormandy.
My next teacher was Jewish, Naum Levin, also a Vyborgian. To me, Levin was a role model of paradoxical unconditionality. I hated the tormented practice and his strong opinions, but I admired him so much that I managed to get through my violin studies. It was work without compromise. Gradually I started to understand how one can enjoy challenging oneself. I learned to appreciate willpower and discipline. It takes a great opposing force to grow into a musician.

In addition to the piano and the violin, I also studied the organ with my godfather, organist Aimo Känkänen. He gave me the key to the old wooden church in Central Lahti. In the evening, I would often tiptoe to the organ balcony and practised. It was frightening to open the organ in the empty and dark church as the organ made repetitive threatening sounds while it warmed up. And the volume! I improvised, and the reverb in the church impressed me.

I was nine when Aarre Hemming became the principal of the conservatory. Every now and then he allowed me to try my hand at conducting the student orchestra. He developed my musical thinking and inspired me towards musical expression. These aspects hardly got much attention during Levin’s lessons. Hemming instinctively saw my latent ambition to become a conductor, and he made me study the necessary music theory for me to become one. I was already at an advanced level in my theoretical studies when I entered the Sibelius Academy. Hemming gave me the baton and showed me how to conjure musical characteristics out of an orchestra. I found that I could lead the musicians with my willpower and started to feel that the orchestra was my kind of an instrument.

In high school, I became rebellious. My teachers were worried about my musical vocation, and they suggested I seek a stable income and a bourgeois profession. I spent one day thinking about it and told my father that there were no alternatives: I was destined to become a musician. I left the high school and changed to evening gymnasium. I played the violin in the Lahti City Orchestra and was offered the seat of the 2nd concertmaster, but I chose to continue as a freelancer. In addition to Lahti Orchestra, I played in churches to cover my living expenses, and I faced the temptations of the independent musician’s life.

After becoming an undergraduate, I told Levin I was moving to Helsinki and thanked him for teaching me for 11 years. He became emotional, and I believe even shed a tear. Then we had a cup of coffee. From that moment, he accepted me as his friend. The next day I packed my Volvo Amazon and drove down to Helsinki. A new world unfolded before me.

Taken from the book by Pekka Tarkka & Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Kapellimestari, published by Siltala 2009