Santtu-Matias Rouvali

Finnish on a high note

The biggest symphony orchestras are in need of music directors: but who’s in the running for the top spot?

On Music

This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Like football clubs, symphony orchestras enter the transfer market in the close season — and I have never known a busier one than the summer of 2022.

Just look at the gaps on the map. New York and Chicago are hunting a music director, as are Munich, Amsterdam and Covent Garden. One league down, there are vacancies at the Vienna Symphony, in Toulouse, Seattle, Minnesota, Seoul, Manchester, Moscow (several) and more.

The net result is that only two front runners are being pursued for all the jobs above

It used to be easy to select a music director. Line up half a dozen guest conductors over one season and see which, if any, impress. Then, if the musicians respond to one, turn on the charm and pitch a salary offer just above rival bids, and well below the current ceiling of $4 million. Done deal.

Covid, however, broke the circuit. Two years without fresh faces on the podium has left musicians unsure what they want and conductors unclear how to proceed. The net result is that only two front runners are being pursued for all the jobs above and they are so little known to the public at large that I cannot guarantee to spell them correctly. They are, needless to say, Finns. What is it about Finns?

Ever since Esa-Pekka Salonen jumped in for a Mahler third symphony in London in 1983, one Finn after another has shot to prominence — Sakari Oramo in Birmingham, Mikko Franck in Paris, Osmo Vänskä in Minnesota, Susanna Mälkki and Hannu Lintu in Helsinki, Jukka-Pekka Saraste in Toronto and Cologne. Salonen himself ruled Los Angeles.

All these conductors studied with one teacher: Jorma Panula at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. Panula, a gruff character, would scan each year’s year 9 entrants and pluck a violist from the student orchestra as his next protégé. When picking a conductor, he says, charisma comes first.

Which is signally unhelpful since charisma in Finland is about as plentiful as date palms. Panula, so far as I can tell, has no magic bullet beyond precision, transmission and basic human psychology. How, then, does a state with as few citizens as Scotland deliver so many of the world’s prime batons?

There is something fundamental going on, something that cuts against the grain of conducting history

I asked Linda Marks, a UK agent who dined for years on braised reindeer while scouting new Finn sticks. Linda puts the profusion down to early tuition and social cohesion. “Until relatively recently all Finnish children learnt to play an instrument,” she says, “and at a much younger age than in most countries. The cost of sending a young person to university is just 75 euros per year. Social problems are rare in Finland; I have never seen a homeless person on the streets. Young people do go to discos and like pop music but classical music — in fact all music — is part of their culture. Many Finns go to concerts three to five times a week.”

That helps, but it’s by no means a comprehensive answer since conditions in neighbouring Sweden are not vastly different and the Swedes still turn to Finland when they need a new conductor. There is something fundamental going on, something that cuts against the grain of conducting history.

Conducting has always been considered an untransmissible art. Many famous fathers tried to pass a baton to their sons but only two — Erich Kleiber (to Carlos) and Neeme Järvi (to Paavo) — succeeded at a high level. The gift is innate, non-transferable. What the Finns have done is to exploit their remote and impenetrable language to create a collective modus operandi and support network which underpin conducting progress, and may, I suspect, at some point undermine it.

Right now, a second generation is coming through, and the beginnings of a third. The two hot Finns of 2022 — Klaus Mäkelä and Santtu-Matias Rouvali — are 26 and 36 respectively. Mäkelä has just drawn rave reviews on an Oslo Philharmonic tour from Vienna to London; Rouvali took Salonen’s place at the Philharmonia Orchestra this season without loss of intensity or invention. By the end of this close season each will have a seven-digit cheque from one of the world’s power orchestras.

Both, let there be no doubt, are natural leaders with an immersive way of taking an orchestra down familiar paths. Mäkelä’s recorded set of Sibelius symphonies on Decca is remarkable in one so young for its flashes of innovation. Rouvali punches great holes in Arctic icebergs with the heat of his Mahler interpretations.

Coming up behind is a lad of 21, Tarmo Peltokoski, who captivated the Rotterdam Philharmonic as substitute for the sanctioned Valery Gergiev. Half-Filipino (and looking half his age), Tarmo whiled away the rest of the night playing shorthand piano with the exacting Yuja Wang.

On paper, it seems safe to predict that batons will continue to contribute to the Finnish economy in profit and prestige as mobile phones did in the 1990s. There are, however, two caveats.

First, orchestras are in desperate need of brand leaders and none of the Finns, not even Salonen, has won popular recognition beyond the concert hall. It may off end national reticence to embrace the trappings of stardom, but classical music is dying for want of eye-catching flamboyance and that quality simply does not grow north of the Baltic Sea.

Second, opera is a Finn-free zone. Apart from Pietari Inkinen, who is conducting this summer’s Bayreuth Ring, students at the Sibelius Academy are not encouraged to continue their education in the opera pit, which is the foundational experience of every important conductor, past or present. This is a serious flaw that has inhibited Finns from scaling Olympus. Bear that hitch in mind when the fanfares sound for this summer’s massive transfer news. stop press: Mäkelä has been sold to Amsterdam. Six major clubs are still in search of a striker.

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