Apr 8, 2016

Me and my Sibelius

— Which of your own Sibelius performances has been most memorable for you, and why?

Certainly the most important Sibelius performance was in Australia with the Finnish Radio orchestra, and I was conducting No. 6. We had an orchestra tour with three different conductors, Leif Segerstam, Esa-Pekka Salonen and myself. I did No. 6, and that kind of created my future with the Finnish Radio orchestra because of that performance.

— Which work by Sibelius do you rate most highly, and why?

These things come and go, but I think No. 4 – I’ve always had the strongest and most stable respect for that symphony. And the others, they change: sometimes I feel very comfortable with No. 5 – nowadays I do No. 5 a lot – but also No. 2, which I have recently come to terms with, and I do quite often.

— Are there any works by Sibelius that you would be cautious about conducting? And if so, why?

I find it very risky to do No. 3. For some reason the technical difficulties in that symphony are quite substantial, and of course I would like to know how the orchestra is performing this kind of music. Of course Kullervo is another work that needs a special relationship, and if the orchestra doesn’t have that kind of attitude, it becomes quite a hard piece to do.

— What ambitions, aspirations or plans do you have for performing Sibelius in the future?

In the territories that are not so familiar with Sibelius’s music, one has to feel a bit like a champion for the music, particularly in Germany; I feel that still there’s a lot to do in getting some of the lesser known works performed and played well. It’s a matter of rehearsal time, and the orchestra needs many performances to get used to the material. Those things are challenges still.

—Who would you think of as the greatest Sibelius conductor of all time, and why?

I think the most important Sibelius conductor was Paavo Berglund, because for all of us he could make these pieces work, and convince all the other conductors that even the biggest problems of the symphonies can be solved if you work and if you put a lot of thought and effort into making them work. I think he has done the biggest service for this music, ever. There were some incredible interpreters, like Karajan, for certain symphonies, for No. 4 in particular.

— Which other Finnish or Nordic composers would you recommend to lovers of Sibelius?

There are works that nobody performs, by Väinö Raitio for instance, that are extremely powerful and interesting. Some of the better works of Klami as well; they are very international. Of course there are works by Merikanto and Madetoja, but with those two composers I find that the symphonic writing is not as strong as it should be. But the opera Juha by Aarre Merikanto is, I think, one of the masterpieces. And then we have to come to later composers, Rautavaara, Kokkonen, Sallinen, and then the younger generation, Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, and some works of Esa-Pekka Salonen; they are very close to me personally, because I have been giving the first performances of many of those.

— What advice would you have for young musicians who want to perform Sibelius?

We had a Sibelius competition for young conductors, and from the beginning we had a problem with the rules of the competition, that all of them should perform a symphony by Sibelius, and then I realized how extremely hard it is, even after doing Stravinsky and Beethoven and the other repertoire in the competition, then comes this task to do a Sibelius symphony, particularly in Finland. For many competitors that turned the situation upside down. I think Sibelius is a composer that you really have to have the feel for – and even if you have the feel, you have to work really hard to make it work with the orchestra. I would certainly start with the obvious, early works, and make them as good as possible; the First or Second Symphonies would be the ones that I would recommend in the beginning.
Interview by Andrew Barnett for Sibelius One Cologne, 2 December 2015.