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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.

Friday 14 March 2014

Alea jacta est - Results of the competition are here

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Today I went to see the finals of the Wind Band Conductors Competition in Järvenpää, which consisted of a dress rehearsal of about 30 minutes per competitor in the afternoon, plus the finalists' concert in the evening at Järvenpää-talo with the Guards Band. Yesterday ten participants had conducted the Helsinki Police Band in works of Holst (but that occasion was not open to the public) and the candidates had been whittled down to the final three.

I must say that after seeing both the rehearsals and the concert today I had a pretty clear idea of my order of preference, but the final verdict of the jury surprised me nevertheless. They decided to give the prizes as follows:

First Prize: Eero Lehtimäki, Finland
Second Prize: Tanja Räsänen, Finland
Third Prize: Christy Muncey, USA

Special prize: Igor Goncharov, Russia (he did not conduct today)

This was the unanimous decision of the jury, but it is a bit hard for me to understand how they ended up with it. So I will try to explain my impressions of the candidates I saw.

To begin with, I was surprised that some candidates that I thought were technically superior to the finalists were voted out in the previous round. But as I said, the second round was not open to the public so I should not debate it. It would anyway have been more interesting to see for example five candidates in the finals instead of just three.

All three had been given different works (by lots I was told) which made it more difficult to make comparisons between them. But what is clear in a rehearsal situation is their time management skill, how they speak to the orchestra and what kind of things they say, and how varied their conducting technique is. And of course you can get an idea of their musicality too even though the pieces are different.

Christy Muncey, who got the Three Dances for Concert Band by Erik Norby as her finals piece, started by rehearsing the work in little bits and saved time in the end for a run through. Technically she was clear but there was not much variety in the gesture. She talked to the orchestra in a very positive and encouraging manner (after every improvement she assured they sounded "lovely"), but almost all of her suggestions were merely technical (about articulation, balance and so on). I am not saying technical instruction is not needed, but I prefer using a kind of vocabulary that could stir the imagination of the players, and I did not hear that today from any of the candidates.

Eero Lehtimäki, who is better known as Johan Smörgårds in his capacity of the "artistic misleader" of the RWBK humor band, got Olav Anton Thommessen's "Stabsarabesque" as his piece. This piece reminded me of Mosolov's "Iron Foundry", it is massive and machine-like and has several longish development sections where you should really be able to time the peaks right. I must say that I was disappointed with Lehtimäki's rehearsal. He started by stopping the orchestra five times on its tracks, and we never heard a longer section of the work. Also the way he communicated with the orchestra made it seem like he does not really believe in the piece. His whole 30 minutes was stopping and starting, and he mostly kept asking the orchestra to play louder and "exaggerate everything". The overall impression was that he did not have a plan but was finding things to rehearse ad hoc.

The last candidate to rehearse the Guards Band was Tanja Räsänen, and she made the most professional impression of the lot by calmly conducting the whole work through before starting to work on the details. Her piece was the easiest of the three though - Einar Englund's "White Reindeer" which basically falls in the category of movie soundtrack music. Tanja was technically clear but not enough varied, with a lot of confidence though - but again in instructing the band she resorted to technical details only just like the others. She finished early which in professional circles is always a plus - provided you rehearsed and said everything you needed to.

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The jury has come out of its lair

In the concert there were no surprises - everyone conducted about the same as they did in the dress rehearsal - except that we finally could hear the Thommesen piece from beginning to end. My order of preference was to give Tanja Räsänen the highest marks, put Christy Muncey second and leave Eero Lehtimäki third. For some reason the jury was most fond of Eero's work though. As some of the jury members were not present at the dress rehearsal I cannot but think that the result could have been different if they would have seen the drastic differences in the time management skills of the finalists. Being a smart and organized person and managing the rehearsal in a professional manner is of utmost importance if you are planning to make a career out of conducting professional orchestras.

On the other hand maybe the result simply reflects the most current trends in conducting, and the things I was taught ten years ago are no longer valid. What made me happy though was that my favorite from the first round, Igor Goncharov, was awarded the special prize! So there still might be a place for a more traditional approach to conducting - just a bit out of the limelight...

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Wind orchestra conductors compete in Finland

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Today I spent my afternoon in Järvenpää watching the Wind Band Conductors Competition which is organized in connection with the Nordic Wind Band Conference. 18 applicants from 9 different countries are competing over small cash prizes and guest engagements with five professional Nordic wind orchestras. I had time to see half of the first round candidates who all had 10 minutes to conduct excerpts from a new piece by Timo Forsström, "Life in Capital City" with our number one band, the Finnish Guards Band.

To be a good wind band conductor is not an easy task, for many reasons. One of the reasons was highlighted by the music selection today. The fast movements of Forsström's piece have long sections that are built around the groove created by the drum set and the percussion. During those moments it is completely useless to conduct with a forceful beat, because all you can do is confuse the players if you are not absolutely precise. Not many candidates had figured this out, and only one of them had the courage to dispense with beating altogether - unfortunately the rest of his work with the excellent Guards Band was unimpressive.

The task on this first round of the competition was to conduct sections of the first and second movements uninterrupted, and then rehearse the third movement. There seemed to be some confusion over the last task, since the chairperson of the jury worded it "You MAY rehearse" which leaves it to the discretion of the candidate whether to rehearse or not. Almost half of them chose not to. I think it would be unfair to disqualify those people because they "didn't rehearse" since the wording was so vague - especially since some of the technically most advanced conductors belonged into this category!

Just to name one favorite - I think the Russian candidate Igor Goncharov absolutely set himself apart from the others by his beautiful interpretation of the slow movement from "Life in Capital City". It just proved how much difference good musicality coupled with good conducting technique can do, even when not a single verbal instruction has been given. There were other promising candidates as well, so I am hoping to see them pass to the second round and do an excellent job with the Holst 1st Suite tomorrow.

UPDATE! Here is the list of second round participants:

Yun Song Tay, Singapore
Christy Muncey, USA
Zoltan Gyimothi, Hungary
Andrea Gasperi, Italy
Igor Goncharov, Russia
Tanja Räsänen, Finland
Juuso Wallin, Finland
Anna-Leena Lumme, Finland
Eero Lehtimäki, Finland
Kaapo Ijas, Finland

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