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Wednesday 16 August 2017

Rachmaninoff and Sibelius, and a new orchestra in Helsinki


Perhaps the most interesting project this summer went by the name of SMO - which could either mean "Sorjonen-Mäkilä-orchestra" or even "Sasha Mäkilä Orchestra". This project started by the initiative of pianist Alina Sorjonen who wanted to gather together a group of musician friends for a performance of Rachmaninoff's 2nd piano concerto. I promised to conduct the orchestra if we could program Sibelius 1st symphony, and brought some of my friends with me - and suddenly we had a symphony orchestra of 65 people who wanted to play this great repertoire! The remarkable thing in this was, that we had no budget, no sponsors, nothing to attract players to this project - except the promise of a couple of days of great music making.


And how it paid off! We did not only have fun rehearsals in a supportive atmosphere where everyone could do their best, but when the concert day came we saw the Temppeliaukio church more crowded than it has ever been. With seating capacity of seven hundred there were about a hundred more people listening to the concert standing up. It was of course a free concert, but audience wise it couldn't have been better. The concert went well and we even got a standing ovation in the end.

Now, it seems like this concert was not a one-off but it sparked a start of a whole new orchestra! Many players came to me after the concert telling how much fun they had and hoping that we do this soon again, and as I am writing this there are already many plans underway - first another concert in Helsinki, then maybe repeating the program in some other city, and finally taking the orchestra on tour if we manage to keep the enthusiasm up. And we have to think about the name too. Or maybe SMO is just fine? Any suggestions?

Monday 14 August 2017

My 12th International Conducting Masterclass - in Pärnu, Estonia

Technique class with two pianists

This summer I taught my 12th international conducting masterclass, and this was already the 4th time I organised it in the lovely spa town of Pärnu, which is also known as Estonia's "summer capital". I had eight talented students attending this time - some of them returning students from my earlier masterclasses, some of them newcomers.

Working with the soloist

In Pärnu we have evening sessions with two pianists where we can solve technical problems. We also work with a soloist every time, so that the students will get an idea of the challenges of doing accompaniments. This year we worked again with violinist Lila Watanabe who comes with a long experience playing in some of the best orchestras in the world.

Orchestra rehearsal with the Pärnu City Orchestra

The Pärnu City Orchestra is an experienced workshop orchestra, and I am always impressed by their positive attitude. I can imagine how tiring it can be to play the same pieces over and over again for different people, but this orchestra is always trying to give their best to the students. Usually we don't spend much time rehearsing, since this masterclass is more about making your technique work. But this time I actually started to think, that maybe it's the right time to dedicate one of my workshops to the questions of rehearsing, since so many good and valid questions popped up during the masterclass week.

After the concert on the stage of Pärnu concert hall

One of the best things during the masterclass week is to see how well the students get along with each other and make friends. When I went to masterclasses myself I noticed that very often the atmosphere was tense and competitive, and that does nothing to help learning. I try to keep the mood relaxed and positive throughout so that people can learn from each other and support each other during the week. We usually have meals together and continue discussing all the topics around the profession. And one of my masterclass traditions is, that every student needs to propose a toast and practice a bit of their public speaking skills at the same time. Welcome to Pärnu again in 2018!

Wednesday 9 August 2017

Celebrating in Sofia

Chopin second piano concerto with Seong-Jin Cho and the Sofia Philharmonic

My last concert this season was my debut in Bulgaria with the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. I did not have any prior knowledge of this orchestra, nor had I ever visited Bulgaria before, but I was very excited to go there after recommendation by the great Bulgarian violinist Svetlin Roussev. One funny detail was the fact that the first rehearsal day would be my birthday, so I decided I will celebrate it with great music doing my favorite thing (conducting) and relaxing in the warm climate (after the horribly cold and rainy Finnish spring) and maybe enjoying the delicious local cuisine.

Despite some problems with rerouted flights I got a great start with the orchestra from day one (or maybe they were just extra polite on my birthday). The rest of the week was equally enjoyable, and I cannot recall the last time when the chemistry between myself and the orchestra was this good. On the plate I had the 2nd symphony of Jean Sibelius, which used to be my favorite symphony alongside Mozart 40 when I was young, and I still love it. After some further flight trouble my piano soloist Seong-Jin Cho - the winner of the 2015 Chopin competition - arrived in town, and we enjoyed similarly easy rapport while working on Chopin's 2nd piano concerto.

Exhausted but happy. Finishing my season on a high note in Sofia.

I was a bit concerned when some musicians told me that late June is not a popular season for orchestra concerts, but to my astonishment the hall was totally packed come concert time. Seong-Jin Cho had to play two encores before the audience let him go after the Chopin concerto. The second half with Sibelius was full of great moments, and it was actually also webcast in an experiment to try out the equipment before the next season's launch of Sofia Philharmonic's official regular webcasts.

Saying goodbye to the orchestra was very emotional after such a triumph to end my concert season. Luckily I am coming back to the Sofia Philharmonic in two years of time, and back to conduct in Bulgaria already next season!

Sunday 6 August 2017

My ERSO debut and the last doctoral concert

At the Estonia Concert Hall with ERSO

This year I finally had time to get seriously back to my doctoral studies at EMTA (Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre), and the big challenge for this spring was to organise my fourth and final doctoral concert. The three earlier concerts I did with the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra in Finland, but by the recommendation of the Estonian conductor and choirmaster Tõnu Kaljuste I had the possibility of conducting ERSO (The Estonian National Orchestra) in a matinee concert as part of Kaljuste's Nargenfestival and the Tallinn Old Town Days.

The topic of my doctoral work is the three symphonies of the Finnish composer Leevi Madetoja, and in this concert I revisited his first symphony (which by the way is also the topic of my thesis which is due later this year). To honor the 100-year jubilee of Finnish independence I built a Finnish program around this piece - the rest of the works were Swans by Väinö Raitio, Karelia Suite by Jean Sibelius, and a shorter tone poem Dance Vision by Leevi Madetoja.

Our rehearsal schedule was very challenging due to the busy week with all kinds of concerts and rehearsals for ERSO, so there was a four day gap between my rehearsals and the actual concert (I cannot recall any other instance with such a weird scheduling). Luckily we also had a short dress rehearsal on the concert day and could repeat what we had been learning the previous week. With the exception of the Karelia Suite all the repertoire was new to ERSO. Despite the difficulties the concert was a success, and hopefully it will not stay as the only occasion ever when ERSO played Madetoja!

Monday 3 April 2017

Evgeny Onegin - a grass-roots opera

Samuli Takkula (Onegin), Visa Kohva (Gremin) and Varvara Merras-Häyrynen (Tatiana)

My last project was a fully staged version of Tchaikovsky's perhaps most popular opera, Evgeny Onegin, which we performed at my former alma mater Helsinki Conservatory (that's where I used to study cello). I was asked to do this already a year ago by my singer friend Varvara Merras-Häyrynen as her graduation project from Metropolia University. The only complication was that we had practically no money to produce it. We applied for grants from several foundations, but only one of them thought our production is worthy of their support. So we had two chances - either to call it quits, or plough on despite the grim financial realities.

A view from the 2nd violins. I had 1st violins and cellos in the middle, 2nds and violas on the sides.

Personnel wise we were lucky. We had singing students from both Sibelius Academy and Metropolia who really wanted to do this project, we had an excellent young stage director who studied his craft in Russia, Anselmi Hirvonen. And we had five rehearsal pianists eager to add this opera in their repertoire. But we had only a dozen of young orchestra players from Metropolia, so to fill the pit I had to first engage the Estonian Music and Theatre Academy to send some of their students to help us, and then go literally hat in hand to ask my musician friends and some very talented amateur musicians to join the pit orchestra just for the good company and the food and drinks that go together with it.

We could fit 32 players in the pit. Barely enough, but everyone did a great job.

Miraculously it all came together, and from the initial cacophony of our grass-roots orchestra it gradually started to sound like a proper opera orchestra - not a small feat considering that some of the players had never played a full symphonic concert in their lives, not to mention opera. The audience was also very impressed by how dynamically and energetically our pit orchestra performed. Nobody could be prouder than me about it!

Our first performance at the Kerava Hall

We performed the opera first in concert version in my home town Kerava, and then brought it to the Helsinki Conservatory stage. And audience wise it was a big success too. When the word got around that our production actually is good, more and more people came to check it out, and finally the second balcony of the conservatory hall had to be opened for the public (generally it is never used). The last performance ended with a standing ovation.

Our last show, to a packed hall.

For me this one was a personal victory, since I really wanted to add Onegin in my repertoire, and I was prepared to work long hours for this dream to come true. And while gathering the orchestra I came across not only great orchestra players, but a lot of positive and generous people who were willing to put their talents and time and effort on the table to make this opera production happen, just like myself. Yet another proof that not everything is rotten in the world. Ars longa, vita brevis!

UPDATE! We got a couple of very positive reviews (in Finnish) plus a mention on YLE Russian language news. See the links below.

Oopperaa ja klassista: Jevgeni Onegin sai miehen kyyneliin

Amfion: Jevgeni Onegin - venäläisistä venäläisin ooppera

Töölöläinen: 2 x Jevgeni Onegin

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