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Saturday 18 April 2015

Touring Asia with St Michel Strings

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On the stage of Shanghai Oriental Art Center. We are so tiny!

The highlight of the spring for St Michel Strings was definitely our two week Asia tour. Originally we had planned to tour only in Korea, invited by JK artist management, but then another possibility opened for us in China. For me China was an exciting destination, since I had not visited it before. Just a few days before leaving to Asia things became even more exciting, since two of our players had to cancel the trip for medical reasons! Luckily I have a lot of contacts in Korea and we could find excellent local musicians to sub with us.

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Dress rehearsal at the Guro Art Valley in Seoul

In Korea we had three concerts with a full Sibelius program. The first one was in the very southern part of the country, in Geoje. The second one was in Seoul, in a small concert center called Guro Art Valley. There I was lucky to have many of my Seoulite friends in the audience, including Hyunsu Shin who was my soloist recently in Finland.

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Final concert of the Korea wing of the tour in Yongin

In Yongin we had our best success both artistically and with the public. Our excellent soloist for the Sibelius violin pieces was Hyuk Joo Kwun. We by the way had local Finns in attendance at all of our concerts, which was especially heart warming. Hopefully we will see again in Korea!

Soon after our last concert in Korea we hopped on the plane and flew to Dalian in northern China. In China classical music is hugely popular right now, but the general public is still getting used to going to concerts. There were a lot of children in our first concert and the public was changing seats during the show, taking photos and so on. But their enthusiasm was something we don't quite get in Finland anymore!

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Last venue of the tour, in Shaoxing

After Dalian we flew to Shanghai where we had a couple of field days before our concert at Shanghai Oriental Art Center. The hall was really huge (see the top photo), but luckily the acoustic was favorable to us, and the concert went really well. After the concert a friend of mine, Christopher Chen, who is now the dean of the conservatory in Suzhou invited us to a very fancy restaurant to enjoy spicy hot Sichuan cuisine.

The next day we took the bus to the city of Shaoxing for our last concert, and after one more field day there the orchestra packed their instruments and started their trip back home to Finland. I, on the other hand took a few more days off work and went to Japan to enjoy my dear hobby Aikido. If you are interested, you can take a look at my training blog where I wrote everything about that trip.

P.S. When the tour started I realized that we still don't have any info online about St Michel Strings in English. Thanks to Kathy Geisler from Well Tempered Productions we had a touring website up and running in no time. Check out her page at www.welltempered.com!

Monday 16 February 2015

From Karaganda to Tampere

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My first concert this year was almost as far from anywhere as you could possibly think - in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. Just take a look at the map and you will see what I mean. No wonder Russians say "in Karaganda" when they mean "in the middle of nowhere". Although, I am still waiting for a trip to Urumqi, China, which is said to be the city farthest in the inland (meaning farthest from any sea) on this planet. I'm sure that day will come soon. Anyway, this was not my first trip to Karaganda. Two years ago I also visited the city and had programmed some French music to delight the audiences.

This time the first part of the concert was dedicated to Jean Sibelius (who would be celebrating his 150th birthday this year if he had not been smoking so many cigars), first number being the rarely played Karelia Overture. It is played so seldom in fact, that people usually confuse it with the Karelia Suite in three movements, and no wonder when I arrived in my first rehearsal, the orchestra had the music for Karelia Suite on their desks! Luckily the matter was resolved before the next rehearsal. We also performed the Sibelius violin concerto, and my soloist this time was a young violinist from Astana, Askar Duisembaev. For the second half we played the 6th symphony of Franz Schubert. I fell in love with this piece after hearing the Chicago Symphony perform it with Riccardo Muti sometime ago.

Just like last year, the hall was full to the last seat and the audience of Karaganda was very appreciative of our music making. I heard an interesting thing about the ticket sales for the orchestra though. There really is no subscription system, and also the sales at the concert day are very small. So where does the majority of the audience get their tickets from? Well, the tickets are sold to them by phone! The administration makes hundreds and hundreds of phone calls every week and tells their regular and semi-regular concert goers about the program, artists, etc. and persuades them to reserve a ticket in the concert. I wonder if I should try this approach with my own orchestra in Mikkeli!

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My second concert project this season was a joint concert with my orchestra St. Michel Strings and the students of Tampere Music Academy. For a performance of Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings and Rodion Shchedrin's Carmen Suite for strings and percussion we were joined by a group of enthusiastic young string players and percussionists from Tampere. We also had an excellent concert master for this project, the violinist and conductor Jaana Haanterä, who has played as concert master in several Finnish orchestras and just recently has accepted a permanent teaching position at the Tampere Music Academy.

Metamorphosen is a work that I had been waiting to program with my string ensemble, and what would have been a better timing for performing it than this. The piece was one of the last pieces Richard Strauss composed, and he composed it exactly 70 years ago. Of course that was not the only thing that happened in 1945. Actually during the week we were rehearsing the world was also remembering 70 years since the Soviets liberated Auschwitz. There could be endless speculation about the circumstances in which this piece was created and their effect to the piece itself, but let's leave it to that. What cannot be disputed is that it is a perfect display of the contrapuntal skill of Strauss.

Carmen Suite, on the other hand was a collaboration between the famous ballet dancer Maya Plisetskaya, her husband Rodion Shchedrin, and well, Georges Bizet who at that time had already been resting in peace for awhile. Shchedrin called the result "a creative meeting of the minds" of two composers. While Strauss in his piece gave no instructions to the players except "espressivo" and an occasional "appassionata", Shchedrin has in his adaptation used almost every possible playing technique from col legno to "Bartok" pizzicato. The percussion parts of course are highly creative and demanding, and the students who played the parts did an excellent job - so much as to have their names individually listed in the subsequent concert review!

We performed this program twice, both in Mikkeli and in Tampere, and the reception of this kind of collaboration was so good that we are planning to repeat it next year. We also got a very positive review in the Tampere newspaper Aamulehti!

Thursday 5 February 2015

Some photos from my 5th International Conducting Masterclass


Sidrit Tushe conducting St. Michel Strings

This January I again had some wonderful time with my students during the already traditional St. Michel Strings winter masterclass. Because of the Finnish holidays the timing was a bit unusual with the final concert on Saturday afternoon instead of our usual Thursday evening, but since we made it a free concert we nevertheless had a lot of audience enjoying the fruits of our hard work during the week.


Andreas Helling playing Elgar, Alex Yu conducts (and Mark Edwards on timpani!)

The two focal points of my masterclass are always conducting technique and natural interaction with the orchestra, but this time we had a third interesting point to consider - accompaniments. Two of our participants had agreed to perform as soloists in the final concert, so everyone could try their hand on the challenging task of accompanying a soloist.


Alex Yu and the Weber Clarinet Quintet, Mark Edwards conducts

During the masterclass week we have the normal 4-hour orchestra rehearsal every morning plus evening sessions where we focus mostly on conducting technique, but on top of those we usually have lunch and dinner together without interrupting the discussions on music and conducting. This time of the year Mikkeli offers very few distractions, so this is a good chance to really concentrate improving your understanding of the complicated task of conducting an orchestra.


Andreas Helling and Andante Festivo

My next masterclass will take place in the end of May in Estonia, and I am already taking applications for that. I am also planning one in the US and maybe one masterclass in Asia as well - the info will be posted on my masterclass website when these plans are a bit more concrete. But the Mikkeli winter masterclass will happen again next January, that's for sure!

Thursday 22 January 2015

2014, a year in review

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Teaching a conducting masterclass in Pärnu, Estonia

2014 was a great year - well, how else! I traveled to many interesting places, met interesting people, and had even time for hobbies. Here's a short summary:

Last year I pretty much established myself as a conducting pedagogue by teaching three conducting masterclasses - my already traditional winter masterclass in Mikkeli, Finland, one in May in Pärnu, Estonia, and yet one more in Mikkeli during the Gergiev Festival.

One of the highlights on the year happened right away in January, when I could conduct my first Beethoven's 9th in Seoul. Other debuts this year included Krasnoyarsk Symphony Orchestra in Russia, and Szczecin Philharmonic in Poland.

For my own orchestra in Mikkeli the most important benchmark this year was starting live webcasts of selected concerts - the first one being Pergolesi's Stabat Mater. I also had the fortune to work with some of the top soloists in the world, including cellist Jian Wang and violinist Vadim Repin. I usually have been very lucky in this regard.

One of my projects to celebrate my 10 years in the profession (now already 11) also came to a finish, my series of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos in Mikkeli. The next big project I am planning is going to be about Mendelssohn - first the string symphonies with my group, and then we'll see what else.

Have a great 2015 everyone!

Wednesday 31 December 2014

December memories

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I rounded up my fall concert season with concerts in Szczecin, Poland, and Vaasa, Finland. In Szczecin I had the honor of performing with the Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra in their brand new concert center which was opened just this September. The building is really beautiful from the outside, and the foyers are shining white as well. The hall itself is mixture of gold and black, and for a modern hall it is a success in my opinion.

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My soloist for this concert was Anneleen Lenaerts who is also the solo harpist of the Vienna Philharmonic, and she played the Gliére concerto which she has just recently recorded on Warner. I also conducted a new piece, "Festivalente" by Widlak, and Beethoven's 5th symphony. The hall was packed, and obviously there was some new concert audience, since people insisted clapping after every movement. Oh, and one of the highlights of the trip was finding a very good restaurant right next to the hall by the name of Per Se (my Finnish readers will get this).

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In the following week I conducted the Vaasa City Orchestra in their Christmas concert featuring the local children's chorus and the tenor Joska Lehtinen who is making a good career in Germany. I have conducted this orchestra often, and there's also a handful of old friends from my study times playing in the orchestra, so it is always nice to return to Vaasa. We also had the good fortune to have a full house, and we finished the concert with some traditional Christmas songs sung by the chorus and the audience together. After the concert the musicians very generously invited me to their Christmas party, and to be honest I don't have a very clear recollection of the rest of the night. In other words, it was a proper ending for the season!

This post is very brief, since I just wanted to put the photos out before I forget. In my next post I will try to round up the whole conducting year 2014 and raise some highlights from my projects. See you soon, and Happy New Year!

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