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Tuesday 18 November 2014

I've come full circle

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I have never kept it as a secret that I have a favorite musical work, which is the Six Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, and especially the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, which was instrumental (pun intended) in my decision to become a professional musician exactly twenty years ago. Listening to my (then) newly acquired recording by Nicolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus Wien I had the closest I have come to a religious experience in my life (extra points for anyone who can guess the movement and the exact place in the score it happened) and decided that this is for me the only way to go. I must dedicate my life to something as great as the music I was listening to.

Now, twenty years later, I have the fortune to rehearse the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto with my orchestra St. Michel Strings and two brilliant Finnish musicians, harpsichordist Matias Häkkinen and flautist Sami Junnonen, and today I was happy to notice that being immersed in this masterpiece still raises all my hairs up. After the rehearsal I paused for a moment to think "why" I am a professional musician, and what is the quality (if there is such) that gives me the right to stand in front of my colleagues and demand them to play in a certain way. Personally, I think every conductor should have a reason why they have this right.

Every conductor - every musician in fact - has of course their own set of preferences, and after thinking hard about what is my strongest point I had to conclude that it is phrasing. Even though I am many times obsessed by form and rhythmic precision while rehearsing, I think phrasing is the thing which comes to me most naturally, and no wonder - going back twenty years in time I suddenly remembered that my favorite reading back then was Harnoncourt's book "Musik als Klangrede". I cannot say I understood his points fully then, but they no doubt have been brewing in my mind all this time and finally come to fruition as I found my musical home in conducting.

Music is a form of communication, and we, as instrumentalists, have to take care how we deliver the message of the composer. First we need to understand it, and then choose the proper manner to bring it out with our instruments, in such a way that, to quote Mozart, "music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music." Isn't that brilliantly put, by the way? Good old Mozart!

As a conductor I need to make sure that even in a densely woven texture all the important voices are clearly articulated. The phrases should breathe and sing, and carry on the conversation. And who knows, maybe another reason why this aspect of music is close to my heart is the fact that my son has a speech defect and articulating the message so that the receiver understands it fully often requires extra effort from us? Just a thought that crossed my mind now... Anyway, thinking about all of this and realizing how everything started with the same music and the same challenges so many years ago made me feel that I have come full circle. And still I feel that I am in the right place, doing what I do.

After sharing this mini-revelation with my readers, I am also happy to invite you to check out my concert later this week at www.e-concerthouse.com. It will be webcast live on Thursday, November 20 at 19:00 Finnish time. The program will be Holmqvist Petite suite baroque, Kokkonen Durch einen Spiegel and J.S. Bach Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor and the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto.

Sunday 14 September 2014

Season opening x 3

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Opening the season of the Krasnoyarsk Philharmonic with Vadim Repin

After the summer I had no less than three chances to open my 2014-15 concert season. My first concert after the long and well deserved summer break was with the Swedish pianist Martin Malmgren (for him it was probably the end of his summer festival season, since his concert was one in the series of "The summer's young artists"). It was essentially a piano recital but Martin wanted to include one work for a larger ensemble, and that was Hindemith's Kammermusik No. 2. He had invited a wonderful group of musicians to perform the piece with us - some of them still students at the Sibelius Academy, some of them seasoned orchestra professionals. After the concert we had the chance to test the sauna facilities of the Helsinki Music Center! Hindemith is a composer I like a lot, so I of course enjoyed working with this music, and we luckily have some plans to perform more of it together with Martin. I was also happy to have this kind of "soft landing" back to work before I went on to conduct longer programs.

In Mikkeli I opened my concert season with St. Michel Strings, and for that occasion we had invited a number of extras to be able to perform the First Brandenburg Concerto of Johann Sebastian Bach. This, of course, was part of my Brandenburg cycle which I started exactly one year ago. Our program was heavy on Bach, since we also played his Orchestral Suite No. 1 and Arvo Pärt's Collage über B-A-C-H. We finished the night with the wonderful Symphony No. 17 by Mozart. It was great to work with my own orchestra again after the summer, and I was happy that our audience welcomed us warmly as well. We rewarded their applause by playing the Air from Bach's 3rd Orchestral Suite as an encore.

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At work with Vadim Repin and the Krasnoyarsk Symphony Orchestra

After Mikkeli I headed way more east for a very pleasant invitation. The Krasnoyarsk Philharmonic had invited me to open their season with a dream program - Shostakovich Festive Overture, Bruch Violin Concerto with Vadim Repin as soloist, and Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony. Krasnoyarsk lies in the southern edge of Siberia, nested approximately between Kazakhstan and Mongolia - you get the picture! To fly there I had to make a stop at Moscow, and there I stayed at my friend Ivan Velikanov, who is a young Russian conductor specializing in early music. From Moscow I had to fly five more hours towards east, before I reached Krasnoyarsk.

Krasnoyarsk Philharmonic has several ensembles and artists working for them, and one of the ensembles is the 105-strong Krasnoyarsk Symphony Orchestra. They perform in the Great Hall of the Krasnoyarsk Philharmonic, which has recently undergone an acoustical renovation, and to me the working acoustics felt really good. I also heard no complaints from my colleagues listening to the rehearsals and the concert. Our rehearsals went on in a very productive atmosphere, and despite having a flu I felt energized after every rehearsal.

For me it was a real honour to perform the pieces by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky with a Russian orchestra. I studied this music a long time ago as a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and the basis of my way of hearing this music comes from my professor Leonid Korchmar. I of course have heard great interpretations of the pieces, first and foremost by Yevgeny Mravinsky, but nevertheless I was intrigued to see how a Russian orchestra would accept the way I, as a Finn, would approach these pieces. Luckily I felt early on in the rehearsals that they accept my point.

A day before the concert I was joined by our violin soloist, Vadim Repin. I had worked with him just once before, and that time in capacity of an assistant conductor, but I was very happy that he remembered me well and we could just jump at work right away. Repin must be one of the easiest soloists to work with - everything he asked from me and the orchestra was very logical and appealed to my musicality. We seemed to instantly find the same wavelength. After our rehearsal together we were rushed into a press conference where I also had an opportunity to exercise my Russian some more!

The concert itself we played for a sold-out hall, and on top of that there was a live webcast which could be seen from all over the world - several of my friends abroad managed to watch it as well. The best compliment of the season so far I received from a violinist who had come all the way from St. Petersburg to hear the concert. "That was real Tchaikovsky!" he exclaimed when he appeared backstage after the concert. I left Krasnoyarsk with warm impressions and will be happy to return there later this year.

Saturday 23 August 2014

Orchestra Conductor Summer Holiday Part II

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Doing my Aikido Nikyu exam this summer

This year I had the rare luxury of a proper summer holiday so I could dedicate my time to something completely different from music. Last time this happened, I went to an archaeological excavation as my readers might remember. This time I decided to revive an old passion of mine, which is martial arts. I've been interested in them since I was a little kid, and I eventually chose Aikido and Tai Chi as my disciplines and pursued them actively for several years. Going abroad to study and later to work made it difficult to continue them, but since my return to Finland two years ago I have been warming up my aikido skills little by little.

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Aikido weapons training camp in Vantaa with Jukka Helminen shihan

My plan this summer was to take a look at the event calendar of Finland Aikikai and enroll on as many aikido camps and seminars as possible. I ended up going on four of them, plus one special day of strength testing for aikidokas. I also did my second kyu graduation at my home dojo Sandokai during the summer.

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Another Aikido camp with Jukka Helminen shihan, this time in Riihimäki

Aikido is considered a "soft" style of a martial art, but it is also done in full contact with your practice partner, so the throws and the joint locks can be risky at times. It all depends on your partner really - if you have a good mutual understanding and sincerely want to help each other to learn, and don't engage in childish testing of strength, then there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Unfortunately it is possible now and then to run into a partner who has a distorted view of aikido and who would be better off competing in WWE instead.

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Aikido summer seminar in Sastamala with Kazuo Igarashi shihan

To get instruction from a high ranked Japanese instructor is a privilege, and I was lucky enough to meet two of them this summer. First I attended the seminar of Kazuo Igarashi shihan. He was an excellent teacher in the vein of a traditional Japanese budoka, and we did a lot of practice with aikido weapons bokken and jo during the camp. The atmosphere in his class was really good and I managed to make many new friends with my fellow aikidokas.

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Aikido seminar in Vantaa with Hiroshi Ikeda shihan

The last seminar of the summer was even more interesting, since we had Hiroshi Ikeda shihan visiting from the US. He was teaching in English so no interpreter was necessary, and he proved to be a master pedagogue with a very analytical mind. The seminar was very intense, lasting five days with two long practices each day, and still we were basically practicing just one thing over and over again. Words "musubi" and "kuzushi" became very concrete during those days. I will leave it to you to figure them out! All in all it was a very refreshing and action-packed summer holiday.

Friday 4 July 2014

My 3rd and 4th International Conducting Masterclasses (plus the XXIII Gergiev Festival)

This summer I managed to organize two conducting masterclasses, one in Pärnu, Estonia, and one more in Mikkeli, Finland in cooperation with the Gergiev Festival Mikkeli. I had visited the Pärnu City Orchestra once before, but not as a conductor - I actually played cello with them in a joint concert with Finnish and Estonian musicians! But that was my previous life, more than ten years ago...

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Karl Tjensvoll from Norway conducting the Pärnu City Orchestra

For my 3rd International Conducting Masterclass in May 18-24 the students came from seven different countries from all over the world just like the last time. We had the Pärnu City Orchestra at our disposal for five rehearsals plus the concert, and every student got plenty of podium time. In addition we met in the afternoons to discuss conducting technique more in depth. The repertoire was very mainstream: Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro overture, Mozart's Violin concerto No. 4, Beethoven's Coriolan Overture and Beethoven's 7th Symphony. A nice bonus was that we were able to practice accompaniments every day with the violinist Lila Watanabe.

Pärnu is a very charming city, and it is a hugely popular summer destination especially for Finns who want to enjoy the spas and the seaside. Next year I hope to attract more of the visiting Finns to our concert! Pärnu City Orchestra played very well for both the rehearsals and the final concert, and I really thank them for creating a good atmosphere for the masterclass. Also the administration headed by Tõiv Tiits was very helpful throughout the week. I will be glad to return to Pärnu next year with my students.

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Opening the Gergiev Festival Mikkeli in the Hirvensalmi church

A month later I came back to Mikkeli to first prepare a concert with my orchestra the St. Michel Strings, and teach my 4th International Conducting Masterclass in June 27 - July 3. The students arrived early enough to hear my rehearsal and the opening concert of the Gergiev Festival Mikkeli (Mikkelin musiikkijuhlat) which we played in the Hirvensalmi Church near Mikkeli. My program was Rautavaara's Divertimento and his Ostrobothnian Polska, Borodin's Nocturne, and Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence. The acoustics of the church were very pleasant and we had a hugely supportive audience that did not let us out before we had repeated the Borodin.

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Ayrton Desimpelaere from Belgium working with St. Michel Strings

Next day I started working with my students who again represented four different countries in the world. Surprisingly, no Finnish students attended this time even though the workshop took place in Finland and we had a lot of perks! By perks I mean that this time the masterclass coincided with the Gergiev Festival, and I had specially asked a permission to take my students to Valery Gergiev's rehearsals and concerts provided there were unsold seats in the hall. Because of this arrangement there was no time for my usual afternoon piano sessions, but on one day the brilliant young pianist Martin Malmgren agreed to be the "orchestra simulator" for a technique session.

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Preparing to show the Mariinsky Theatre team how we play soccer in Finland

All in all this was a very fun masterclass, and on top of all musical challenges we also risked our health in a football (soccer) match between the Mikkeli festival team and the Mariinsky Theatre musicians (Mikkeli won by the way!). We also supported the local ethnic restaurants and practiced the good Eastern European tradition of giving long toasts at the table. Hopefully the festival would agree to a similar arrangement next year - it was a huge treat to hear Gergiev rehearse a world class orchestra and hear concerts with artists like Denis Matsuev, Leonidas Kavakos, Alexander Toradze, Sergey Khachatryan and Narek Hakhnazaryan.

Our masterclass concert concluded the festival and it was very well attended. All the students did an excellent job in the concert - and so did St. Michel Strings which again was a very nice and cooperative workshop orchestra. Special thanks to Seojung Park who agreed to play the Mendelssohn D minor violin concerto so that we could again practice accompaniments.

After I wrapped the masterclass up I returned home for luxurious five weeks off! In the meantime it would be nice to read the impressions of the masterclass participants and the festival audience, so feel free to submit some comments to this entry. Have a great summer everyone!

Monday 23 June 2014

Looking back at St. Michel Strings spring season

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I returned today to Mikkeli to start rehearsals with my orchestra St. Michel Strings for our performance at the Gergiev Festival this coming Friday, and since it's been a long time since I last updated my blog I thought I'd look back at what kind of things we were doing after Piotr Gribanov's concert and how we are keeping up with our plans to develop the orchestra in all fronts.

For my personal gratification and to celebrate my 10th season as a professional conductor I have been performing a cycle of J. S. Bach's Brandenburg concertos which are some of my most favorite music. In the beginning of April I could perform the 4th Brandenburg concerto with two old friends playing the flute parts, Annaleena Puhto who is the principal flute of the Tampere Philharmonic, and Eveliina Laine who is the sub-principal in Joensuu City Orchestra. We have a long history together since both of these lovely ladies used to study flute under my mother's guidance.

Later in April I could perform the 6th Brandenburg Concerto, and since we did not have viole da gambe at our disposal we did a "heretic" interpretation of the piece by substituting cellos for the gamba parts. I was happy to brush up my cello chops a bit and sit in the section next to my orchestra musicians to play one of the parts. In this program we also performed Pergolesi's Stabat Mater with Piia Komsi and Wivan Fagerudd in the vocal parts. What was even more important was the fact that this concert was our first ever live webcast from Mikkeli, and it was seen by over one thousand people from altogether seven countries. You can also see the Pergolesi online at www.e-concerthouse.com. We hope to do more of these webcasts in the future.

On April 27 we had the great honor to perform at the National Veterans Day celebrations which were televised nationwide. We played pieces by Sibelius and Haapalainen, as well as joined our forces with the Dragoon Guards Band for some patriotic music. The broadcast was seen by approximately 160 000 viewers which probably is the biggest audience we have had in Finland (last summer in South Korea we might have had bigger reach during the Great Mountains Music Festival).

Last but not least, our season finale in May was a huge success with our home audience, and a lot of it was due to the charm of our superb soloist, the Chinese violoncellist Jian Wang. During these two years I have not seen such a reaction from our politely reserved Finnish public. I hope we could continue the trend next season - both in the quality of the concerts and the numbers of listeners we could attract to Mikaeli.

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