Hannu Lintu is currently Chief Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, having held previous positions as the Artistic Director of the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, Chief Conductor of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, as well as Principal Guest Conductor of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin. In this interview, Lintu reflects on his relationship with the Finnish RSO, his future plans for the orchestra, and the role of the orchestra in the upcoming Sibelius year.
« The audience understood that contemporary music is a natural thing, not something that you should escape from »
ResMusica: You are about to finish your first full season as Chief Conductor of the Finnish RSO. Please give us some impressions of your first season.
Hannu Lintu: We have had an interesting season and some very good concerts. We have been talking a lot about sound; we are in middle of working with the sound, we are in the middle of recruiting new people.
They want to work, which is nice, because I want to work too. They are open to new ideas–for instance, we are now playing the Sibelius symphonies again. They have not really been playing the symphonies for years–Sakari Oramo did not do them much. So now we have to actually work through them again. They have enormous flexibility on those pieces–they want to play them differently.
RM: Your original contract was originally for a three-year term, but you have very recently extended your contract until July 2018. How did you and the orchestra already agree to a contract extension?
I think the main reason for why we decided to extend it now is that we already knew each other very well. I had done at least 30 concerts with them before. We did not need a long time to get used to each other. Usually the conductor and orchestra need about at least two seasons before they are able to decide they would like to continue or not.
In this case, there was an option in my contract for two more years. So what we actually did was we extended my first contract. My first contract is now a five-year contract, not a three-year contract. The reason for this was, of course, that we wanted to show the audience that the cooperation is going well and that we enjoy working together. It is clearly a signal of that.
But also, from the program planning point of view, it is really very important that we can start planning seasons now: 2016-17, 2017-18. After the big Sibelius year, 2015, we have 2017-18, a very important year for Finnish independence–we have to plan something around that. Also, touring activities nowadays are planned very far ahead. We have long tours coming: we are going to Asia, we are going to Europe a few times. Actually, some of these tours are on the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons already. It would be difficult to negotiate tours with agents without me having a contract with the orchestra.
So several reasons. It is now a peaceful two years. We can go ahead, and after the two years we can decide if there will be another contract or not. Basically, this is just making the first contract a little longer.
RM: How did your relationship with the Finnish RSO begin, and how did it evolve to you becoming chief conductor?
HL: It began in maybe 1995, when I was still studying. They gave me my first recording, an archive recording, or maybe music for a TV program. I did that, and a couple of other recordings. The first official concert was probably 1997 or 1998. Since then, I have conducted them every year, sometimes twice a year. I have also done some commercial recordings. Altogether 32 or 33 programs. It was a natural thing, I think, to finally take the orchestra and to become music director. As I said, we knew each other very well. So it was a natural extension of our relationship.
RM: Can you describe the kind of orchestra that you inherited from Sakari Oramo, and how you plan to build on his legacy?
HL: The Finnish RSO, even before Oramo, has always been a tight, rhythmical orchestra with a pretty transparent sound. I think what Oramo added to that was a certain kind of warmth in the sound, as well as a little more flexibility on the rhythmical side–still without losing the tightness. I am continuing from there. I have plans, we have plans. I am not going to tell them–they are secrets. If I tell you now that the sound of the Finnish RSO is going change into that or that direction, and something else happens, then I have to explain to you what happened! You will hear a different sound, you will hear some differences in three years.
We are working with things. We are working a little bit more with the balance, with details. The chief conductor succeeds if the orchestra plays better when you leave. That is the main thing for the conductor–to make the orchestra better, no matter how good it has already been.
RM: The Finnish RSO regularly programs new music, as well as music from lesser-known composers from the recent past. Why do you think the Finnish RSO is so receptive to this kind of music, and why Helsinki audiences are so willing to try the new and unfamiliar?
HL: First of all, if you look at it from the Finnish broadcasting company’s point of view, we have to do it. It is actually in the law, that the Finnish broadcasting company must support and maintain Finnish culture–music, literature, and especially language. We have to commission new Finnish music, we have to make recordings of Finnish music, because that is the function of the Finnish broadcasting company.
The audience is a little bit of a different thing. I think Avanti! (chamber orchestra) did a lot. When Avanti! started 30 years ago, contemporary music did not have an organic place in Finnish orchestral life. That is the reason why Avanti! was founded. Gradually, during the first 15 years of Avanti!’s existence, and partly because of the Musica Nova festival (biannual new music festival in Helsinki), as well as some active composers, such as Korvat Auki (Finnish new music society; founding members include Magnus Lindberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Kaija Saariaho), I think the audience started to realize that there is not anything one should be afraid of in contemporary music. They realized that world-famous soloists are coming and playing contemporary music, and our best conductors and orchestras are playing contemporary music all the time. So, they understood that it is a natural thing, not something that you should escape from. Of course, the Finnish RSO did a lot, especially by recording new music.
It is combination of things–I think it mainly happened because performers had the right kind of attitude. Composers cannot do much–no matter how much they want their pieces to be performed, it does not help if no one performs them. It seems that contemporary music became part of an average Finnish musician’s vocabulary, somehow. Now, also at the (Sibelius) academy. People are studying Beethoven, Sibelius, and Brahms, but also contemporary music. We had the same thing at the conductor’s class, when Mr. Panula was teaching, and the same with Mr. Segerstam. Of course we had to study Sibelius, of course we had to study the Viennese classics, but all the time we had to study contemporary scores. This way, the musicians become attached to contemporary music and it becomes a natural part of their lives. Gradually, this reflects to the audience. But, it took years.
RM: I think that there may be many other European cities, even major ones, that would be jealous.
HL: I think there are.
There are amazing cities like Vienna, in which actually the contemporary music circles are incredibly active. They do have lots of interesting ensembles and interesting concerts, but of course they do not have much audience. I think that contemporary music life in Vienna, for instance, is even more active than it is in Paris, or Berlin. You can find amazing things in places that you would never guess.
If someone has reason to be jealous abroad, it would be the composers. Composers here are taken into the media world as well, very easily. People like Magnus (Lindberg), Kaija (Saariaho), Esa-Pekka (Salonen) and Kalevi Aho–they are all the time in the media. That is very difficult for a composer, in any country.
RM: The Helsinki region has arguably the richest classical music scene in the world for a city of its size. In addition to the Finnish RSO, the Helsinki region also boasts two other full-time orchestras (the Helsinki PO and Tapiola Sinfonietta), the Finnish National Opera, the Sibelius Academy, and numerous other festivals and ensembles. How do you think the Finnish RSO fits into this almost embarrassment of riches?
HL: We do have our own profile. It certainly looks different than the (Helsinki) Philharmonic, or other big Finnish orchestras. We can take more risks, probably, than other orchestras in this area because we are financed in a different way. The Philharmonic is financed by the government and the city, and the government and the city are not doing that well, financially. We are completely financed by the broadcasting company. We are actually independent from the general changes in the economy, which means that we can take bigger risks in programming. Sometimes we can do concerts which do not sell that well, but they might still be interesting from the programming point of view.
Of course, other orchestras such as the Tapiola Sinfonietta and the Helsinki PO are playing more and more contemporary music, and more and more interesting things. We have a very healthy competition going on in this city, especially between the Finnish RSO and the Philharmonic. We both have our own subscribers, but we still have a certain amount of tickets we have to sell every evening. We have over 3000 subscribers, which means that we have to sell at least 600 tickets for each concert. That audience, those who just buy separate tickets in this city, they are the same for every orchestra. It means that if the Philharmonic is doing something interesting, then those people go there; if we do something interesting, they come to us. The competition is actually about that group of people, but that group of people is not huge in this city. I would say that it is not bigger than 2000 people. Not even that.
RM: What do you think is the role of a full-time radio orchestra in the 21st century?
HL: YLE (Finnish broadcasting company) is taking the orchestra very seriously. We are doing very well. Even from the top of company, the directors are very interested in the Finnish RSO–touring activities and what we do. They have been increasing the time on TV for us, and that is still going to be increased. Now, we have had 10 concerts live on TV; next season we will have probably 14 or 15. They have noticed that the radio orchestra is important for the profile of the company. Now, especially after the new tax, this is the only orchestra that you can listen to for free, if you just pay your taxes.
If you think of what the Finnish broadcasting company is doing internationally–the company is doing really important work in the country for Finnish culture. But, if you think of Finnish- and Swedish-speaking programs of YLE, I do not think they are that interesting from the international point of view. So actually, the orchestra is the most international face for the Finnish broadcasting company. That is what they realized.
Our live-streaming, our concerts which stay on Areena (an YLE internet channel), our touring activities, our recording activities, I think it is the best international visibility for the Finnish broadcasting company that you could ever imagine. So the company needs us and of course we need the company. We need the facilities that the company can provide us–of course the Musiikkitalo (the new Helsinki Music Center), visibility on TV and internet. Because we are independent financially from the government, we can take risks. That is why I think the broadcasting company is important for the musical reasons.
I think broadcasting orchestras are needed everywhere in Europe. I do not know how well aware you are of the situation in Holland or Germany, or maybe in the future in Britain. The problems arise when there are too many orchestras in one broadcasting company. This was a problem in Amsterdam–they had three orchestras. The BBC has five. This might become a problem.
I do not think there is a crisis for broadcasting orchestras as such. But it just means that the broadcasting companies must rationalize the way they represent classical music and how they represent orchestral music.
The challenges facing radio orchestras do not seem to be happening to the Swedish radio, the Danish radio, not even the French radio–they have two orchestras in Radio France. They are having problems in Madrid and Amsterdam. We were just in Vienna, and I met some people from ÖRF (Austrian broadcasting company), and it seems that the position of the Austrian broadcasting orchestra is very solid. Even Berlin, with their two radio orchestras under the same umbrella–they seem to be doing better and better. So the danger is not over but things are looking brighter.
I think broadcasting company orchestras are doing well if they are modern enough, if they are using modern media, if they are interested in new things, if they are interested in experimenting. But, at the same time it is really important that they are good orchestras. No one is interested in a bad radio orchestra.
RM: How do you and the FRSO plan to commemorate the Sibelius year in 2015?
HL: Not much in concerts. Together with YLE we are preparing seven programs, one on each symphony. Each program will contain a documentary section, focusing on Sibelius at the time of composition–what he did, did he travel to Italy for the second symphony, how did his world look like, where was he living, what did the world look like from a cultural and historical point of view.
Then a section in which I introduce the symphonies. I am telling something about each movement–about the themes, how it is put together. The orchestra plays some excerpts, sometimes taking out certain bits and certain lines from the woodwinds–taking the pieces apart.
The third part of each program is a complete performance of the symphony. That is why we are filming all the Sibelius symphonies live from the Musiikkitalo. So it will be seven programs, and they will be probably ready in March 2015.
This is actually our contribution for (Sibelius year) 2015. It takes a lot of time–for me, for the whole company, for the orchestra. During 2015 we will play a few things, but we are not going to play a cycle of symphonies again, we are not going to play the complete symphonic poems, we are not going to play the complete incidental music. We are probably going to play some original versions for Helsinki audiences, because those versions have not been played much in Helsinki.
We are also commissioning new orchestrations of songs–Colin Matthews and Aulis Sallinen. Of course, in Autumn 2015 there will be the (Sibelius) violin competition, which takes two weeks.
So there will be a lot of Sibelius in the programs, but this is our main contribution.
RM: You now have at least until 2018 to continue your artistic partnership with the FRSO as chief conductor. Can you tell us a little about your future plans with the orchestra?
HL: As I mentioned, we are in the middle of finding new musicians for important posts. We actually have half a dozen important auditions next year. That is one of our main challenges.
We have recording plans. We are recording all the Prokofiev piano concertos with Olli Mustonen, we are going to release two CDs which are already recorded–the Turangalila symphony and the Berio Sinfonia. Of course continuing to record Finnish young composers–there is going to be a CD of Lotta Wennäkoski’s music and Sebastian Fagerlund. Maybe some Magnus Lindberg, but this is what the radio orchestra has always been doing.
I think the main challenge is that we need to play more and more at important international venues. We need to play in Vienna, we need to play in London. Now we have a huge tour, 2015, almost three weeks in Japan, China, and Korea.
It is really important that we take care of our audience here in Finland both through the media and also traveling to smaller Finnish cities–next season we are going to four different Finnish cities. Building the international reputation and charisma of the orchestra. I think these were the challenges Sakari Oramo had when he started; these were the challenges when Jukka-Pekka Saraste started. These are always the main things.
There is not anything special except some musical things, some sound things we are going to change sooner or later. We are still in the process of getting used to the Musiikkitalo. That still requires a couple more years at least, I think.
Crédit photographique : © Veikko Kahkonen