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Sakari Oramo is currently Chief Conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, having previously held these positions with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Oramo is also Principal Conductor of the West Coast Kokkola Opera and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra. In this interview, Oramo talks about his path to conducting and his approach to music and orchestras.
ResMusica: You began your career as a violinist, as concertmaster of the Finnish RSO, and now you are conducting the top orchestras of the world. Did you always envision conducting to be part of your artistic journey? How did you make this transition from the first chair to the podium?
Sakari Oramo: I made my public conducting debut at the age of 11 on Finnish TV, conducting a folk song arrangement wearing rubber boots (it was a rainy day). Astonishingly, my beat has not changed that much. So I guess conducting has always been there but I really did not think of it as a possible career path, rather just a way of enlarging my musical experience. I went through three years of intensive studying in Prof. Jorma Panula’s class in Helsinki in my mid twenties, whilst also working as concertmaster in the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The transition happened after I had got to cover for a sick conductor at a concert with my own orchestra in 1993. Word then spread and before I noticed I was running a schedule of a fully professional conductor. At that point it was evident that I had to relinquish my concertmaster position.
RM: Relatively early in your conducting career, in 1996, you were appointed principal conductor of the City of Birmingham SO, taking Simon Rattle’s position. How did your relationship with this orchestra begin? Was it intimidating to be Rattle’s successor? Where did you want to take this orchestra, seeing that it was already world-class and internationally known?
SO: Yes, the appointment was made in 1996 and I started two years later. I had a vision on how an orchestra should sound, I had some repertoire and willingness to work my socks off to achieve what I wanted, but I had no experience in working in an organisation. Also, the UK was a totally new environment for me; there was a lot to take in. Taking over an orchestra that had been everywhere and had seen it all did not seem daunting as I knew I was a choice the musicians made. They wanted something different, and their loyalty remained strong through some quite difficult patches. I never felt they would not go with me musically even though there might have been occasional difficulties in other areas.
RM: You have a long association with Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, and you recently became artistic director of this ensemble in 2013. While this is an ensemble of international caliber it is not particularly well known outside of Finland. Tell us about your relationship with this orchestra what future plans you have with this orchestra.
SO: The Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra is essentially a string orchestra although we enlarge it from time to time to serve the musical needs of the city of Kokkola. The whole setup is unique and really the creation of one man, a singularly fine musician and a man stubbornly focused on excellence, Juha Kangas. They proved early on that excellence also could come from outside the big cities, and relied heavily on the Kokkola region’s unusually strong folk music tradition. Combine that with the masses of very fine contemporary pieces written for them, and you get an orchestra immensely capable and with a recognisable, unique sound, polished but very strong, gritty and characterful. I am honoured to work with them and carry Kangas’ principles into a new era. We will perform in Vienna Musikverein in April 2014, and I hope for more international activities with them.
RM: In 2004, along with your wife, the soprano Anu Komsi, you founded the West Coast Kokkola Opera. Tell us about the genesis as well as the artistic goals of this project.
SO: The Kokkola Opera project started with a desire to bring some fresh thinking into the stagnated, monumental Finnish opera scene. We wanted to create an opera environment to a part of Finland where it did not exist before us on a regular basis, and make it mean and slick, able to react to everything happening. We have been performing in different venues: on a seaside pier, in a church, theatre, concert hall, factory, circus tent (!) and what have you, making the point that opera needs to go near the people, exactly as it started in the 16th century. This summer we are doing what is very likely to be a Finnish premiere of Kurt Weill’s Silver Lake, really one of his strongest works and terribly suitable for the year 2014!
RM: You are a noted interpreter of the music of Nielsen and Sibelius, which is not necessarily surprising for a Finnish conductor. However, you are also a champion of the music of Elgar, John Foulds, and Villa-Lobos. What were your first encounters with these composers, and what are the unique qualities of their music which attracts you?
SO: I am boundlessly intrigued by the process of historical selection in the art of music. Why do we know some composers well and others not at all: Elgar vs. Foulds, Hindemith vs. Kaminsky or Heinz Schubert etc. We need a wider view on our musical heritage, the figures in the shadows as well as those singular personalities, like Villa-Lobos, or Jón Leifs for example, who could at their best be absolutely visionary. It is a terrible mistake to limit ourselves within stylistic, national boundaries and only listen to music we already know, over and over again. On the other hand it is also incredibly important to keep alive the tradition of interpreting Mahler, Debussy, Schumann, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn for example. It is all a matter of balance.
RM: Would you say that you try to bring a consistent approach to each score? Are there certain truths to the music that you try to reveal, regardless of the composer? Or do you view each individual score as a unique entity, and should be treated as such? Or something else?
SO: Both, and more. My aim is always recreate each piece as it were for the first time. I want to hark back to the inspiration that drove the composer, I want to love the material as much as they did when writing the music. I am looking for inner voices that are usually not audible, for instance, shapes in phrases, working up to climaxes but also listening to the silence around and between the notes. It is all about atmosphere, backed up of course by a lot of experience and knowledge. I do not think at all of any performances that have been before, by myself or anybody. Performing music is an act of creation, not managing some existing parameters or received wisdom. Evidently, some orchestras respond better to this approach than others. I feel that to do a really special job, a conductor has to be allowed a degree of awe, questioning and even uncertainty facing something as great as music is. I am against the « grab and rip » attitude where the conductor has all the truths and the musicians just perform. Any good performance is a dialogue, or rather a quadrilogue: composer-conductor-musicians-audience.
RM: Thus far, your career as a conductor has been based primarily in the Nordic countries as well as the UK. Would you say that there is a distinct Nordic orchestral sound? A distinct British sound? If so, is this something that you have tried to cultivate?
SO: Each orchestra has a DNA that comes from various factors; the age structure and cultural backgrounds of the players, past conductors, common experiences, and a fusion of the orchestra members’ wishes, aspirations and attitudes. With the CBSO and Finnish Radio Symphony, I really aimed at changing the sound towards my own ideals: more colours in the strings, less dominant brass, individual woodwinds etc. But it has more to do with the music we perform, than with national characteristics.
RM: Where do you see your artistic path taking you? What challenges would you like to tackle in the future?
SO: I do not plan very much ahead. I want to perform music that interests, intrigues and touches me, and I want to work exactly with the musicians I do now. I want to see my own orchestras flourish and be happy and united in service for music.
RM: You will soon be visiting Switzerland with the BBCSO, your first tour as this ensemble’s music director. Tell us about the tour repertoire and how Switzerland was chosen. Are there any particular qualities of this ensemble that wish to showcase on this tour?
We bring along music by Elgar, Mahler, Dieter Ammann, Brahms and Sibelius. It is a great opportunity to show the BBCSO in all its beauty. They can make a really beautiful sound and also build fantastic musical developments.