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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

Sunday 2 April 2017

Getting my hands dirty (with real music making)

At the Cultura Foundation with soprano Varvara Merras-Häyrynen

In late January I started to work on a student opera production at the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences. Our ambitious task was to put together a fully staged opera, Tchaikovsky's Evgeny Onegin, with just music students and volunteers (one of my colleagues already called it a "civic opera"). We did not receive much funds, but one of our supporters was the Cultura Foundation. And of course we had to go and perform at their grant giving ceremony.

I had not even touched my cello for a year, but for this occasion I took it out of the case and practiced for a week so that we could perform two songs with the Tatiana of our production, Varvara Merras-Häyrynen. Our Onegin was a big success, by the way! I will write a separate blog entry on that. Now my cello is back in its case and the blisters in my fingers have already healed.

At the Dubrovnik Bar & Lounge with Lone Star Dreamers a cappella group

That was not the only chance for me to get my hands dirty with "real" music making instead of just waving my baton in front of other musicians. Years ago I used to sing in a doo-wop group called Lone Star Dreamers with my old classmates. After I left they had kept going and were releasing a new album this March. And they wanted to celebrate it with the original line-up! So I joined them on stage for my old bravura number "Zombie Jamboree", despite a beginning laryngitis that for sure made me sound like a zombie myself. What a fun night it was!

Saturday 1 April 2017

February in Siberia

Conducting the Krasnoyarsk Symphony Orchestra

In February I again had the pleasure to travel to Siberia to work with the Krasnoyarsk Symphony Orchestra. In the program I had the third symphony of Jean Sibelius which has always been one of my favorites. Luckily the Russian players loved this music as well. The principal viola came to chat with me at the rehearsal break and told me she not only discovered the music of Sibelius when she was trying to find out more about the week's program, but also discovered a great Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund.

With my piano soloist Alexander Malofeyev

The first half of the concert was supposed to be the second piano concerto by Tchaikovsky, but on the way to the first rehearsal the director of the orchestra told me that the original piano soloist got sick and the program has to be changed. In my dressing room I found the score of the first Tchaikovsky piano concerto, and the following day heard that the soloist will be Alexander Malofeyev whom I already knew from Gergiev Festival Mikkeli. Working with him was very easy, and the concert went really well too. Can't wait to return to Siberia next year!

Wednesday 25 January 2017

Finnish music with the Finnish Guards Band


My first concert this year was very special, because it was with the Finnish Guards Band. It is not only the flagship orchestra of the Finnish Armed Forces, but it also boasts being the oldest Finnish orchestra still active, being founded in 1819.


For this concert I was asked to compile a Finnish program, since this year Finland celebrates 100 years of independence and this concert opened the classical series of the Finnish Guards Band. My program was not completely Finnish anyway, since I wanted to take a historical approach and somehow take into account our neighbors Russia and Sweden. So, in addition of the Finnish pieces by Sibelius, Merikanto, Pisto and Eerola we performed the very original piano concerto of the Russian-born Igor Stravinsky, with a Swedish soloist, my friend Martin Malmgren.


The concert week was very intense, since I was working just ever so slightly outside my comfort zone. The wind orchestra is a very specific instrument and you have to know something about the issues of balance, timbre, dynamics, stamina of the players etc. The seating is different, the scores look different and so on. But these players (of whom I know many personally) are such a joy to work with that in the end I was very happy with the result. The audience seemed to agree with me - the Temple Church was again packed, and I was happy to see so many friends during the intermission and after the concert.

Photos by Marko Nevanperä/Finnish Armed Forces

Saturday 21 January 2017

Continuing the winter masterclass tradition in Mikkeli

With my students before the final concert

One thing has stayed the same during the past five years, and that is my traditional winter masterclass in Mikkeli. When I count all my masterclasses this is already the 11th I am teaching (in addition I have taught two summer masterclasses in Mikkeli, three masterclasses in Pärnu, Estonia, and one in Texas). I had five talented students come from Finland, the US, Switzerland and Poland this time, and we worked hard for six days. During this time we held four evening sessions with the faculty pianist Taru, five orchestra rehearsals and two concerts, one in Ristiina and the other in Mikkeli. In addition we spent a lot of time together sharing lunches and dinners, talking about music and life, and practicing giving our toasts (another tradition of mine). The program was all Nordic - Grieg, Rautavaara, Sibelius, Nielsen.

It is no secret that I really enjoy teaching conducting. I think, having had so many great teachers it is my duty to try to pass on the knowledge and experience I have acquired. I always welcome everyone on my masterclasses regardless of what kind of groups they conduct - whether it is a kids' string group or a professional symphony orchestra. And I applaud the courage of people who come, especially if they are no longer students. To me it is wonderful that people who already are experienced and working out there want to update their knowledge and learn new skills.

Did you attend my masterclass during past five years? What did you think? I am curious to see if my students have noticed some trends or special emphasis in my teaching. You can comment below.

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