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Tuesday 20 September 2016

White Nights in St. Petersburg and Savonlinna Opera Festival

After saying goodbye to Mikkeli my next destination was St. Petersburg, where I caught up with my old teachers Leonid Korchmar and Piotr Gribanov. Maestro Gribanov had asked me to help him with some performances of Swan Lake with the Tchaikovsky Ballet - he needed to take a week off so I promised to conduct five performances at Aleksandrinsky and Hermitage theatres. But first of course I had to learn the piece, so I went to see Gribanov's performances and he gave me all sorts of useful tips. I must say even to start conducting ballet is a big challenge, because you need the right scores, and what you can buy from the music shop is probably totally different from what the company uses. I also took the "original score" out from the library, but had to print dozens of extra pages (thanks, IMSLP) to get all the numbers I needed, and of course everything was in wrong order too. But that was enough to start studying the piece. Before I left St. Petersburg I got the "proper" score that the company uses, and it honestly was one of the worst looking scores I've ever used. It was a totally worn out photocopy to begin with, with lots and lots of cuts, some of the music only in piano score, and at least five different conductors had used it and of course marked it heavily (which is a must when you deal with different dancers and their preferences) with pencil, color, sticky notes and the like. But as I said, it finally was the show I was going to conduct, exactly in the right order from the first note to the last.

Before my Swan Lakes I needed to go back to Finland for a few days, because I did not want to miss a very rare event - Riccardo Muti visiting the Savonlinna Opera Festival with his youth orchestra, "Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini". A friend of mine from Paris had put me in touch with the orchestra earlier, when they needed to figure out where in Finland they could rent double basses for their players, and as the results the orchestra invited me to their opera performances (Falstaff and Macbeth) and the final symphonic concert with maestro Muti. I also got permission to watch Muti's rehearsals, and that was very interesting as always. This youth orchestra had amazing discipline, and Muti had trained them really well - especially I was impressed by their phrasing that had a rare singing quality, much akin the way best Russian orchestras play. The concert program was Coriolan overture, Schubert's Unfinished symphony, and Beethoven's 5th. After the concert, when I told maestro Muti how much I enjoyed his rehearsals, he welcomed me to attend his rehearsals any time I am visiting Chicago!

After the opera festival visit it was back to hard work with Swan Lake. On the day of my first performance I spent about six hours just going through the score over and over again. I was going to conduct the piece directly in front of the audience without any rehearsal, I did not know the orchestra from before, and I did not know the dancers either except what I had seen in Gribanov's performances, so I simply had to get it right from the get-go! The performance itself was the biggest adrenaline rush I've felt in years, and luckily everything went according to the plan. I of course met the dancers at the intermissions and after the final curtain to get feedback about the tempos and their visual cues for certain things, so every performance after the first one went smoother and felt easier. Conducting the Swan Lake for five times was a great experience and I can say I learned from it more than I've learned about conducting in years. Conducting ballet is really a special thing and it should be taught as part of basic conducting studies. Now I feel that the ballet conductors form a kind of secret society that knows the ins and outs of the job and does not easily share it to "outsiders". But one thing I can say with confidence now: It's not a shame to be called a ballet conductor. Ballet is extremely difficult to conduct and poses a whole new set of challenges to the conductor. I have much respect now for this specialty.

I stayed in St. Petersburg a few more days after my last show, to listen to some rehearsals and concerts with Valery Gergiev and to meet some colleagues. I also happened to hear Valery Gergiev and Alexander Toradze working on a recording of the Stravinsky piano concerto. Many times Gergiev seems to be in a rush and leaves things unrehearsed at the dress rehearsal, but this time he was making a recording and was rehearsing the most minute of details very patiently, which was very refreshing to hear.

Sunday 18 September 2016

Gergiev Festival, 9th masterclass, and finishing it all in Mikkeli

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I launched my summer festival season by taking part in the 25th Mikkeli Music Festival with St. Michel Strings. And, sadly, this was also my last week of working with them as Music Director. We had three exciting years together with many interesting projects, but now the time was ripe for moving on (more about this in some later post, I promise). Anyway, at the festival we performed a really great program with five Mariinsky Theare principal musicians added to our group! We opened the concert with Richard Strauss' Duet-concertino for clarinet and bassoon, then played the Shostakovich 1st piano concerto with the incredible Daniil Kharitonov, and for the second half one of the most popular works ever written for srings, Tchaikovsky's Serenade in C Major. I was especially happy that maestro Gergiev decided to come and listen to my final concert as Music Director. As encore we played the Adagietto from Mahler's 5th symphony, with Mariinsky principal harpist Sofia Kiprskaya very generously joining our strength.

Masterclass conductors in mikkeli music festival 2016

Before saying goodbyes there was one more project, culminating in the final orchestra concert of the festival, and that was my 9th international conducting masterclass. Just like two years ago, we worked in the morning with St Michel Strings and in the afternoons and evenings we enjoyed the amazing sound of the Mariinsky Orchestra in rehearsals and concerts. Five talented conductors from around the world took part, and we had really great time as always. All of them did really well in the final concert, congratulations! In my farewell speech to the orchestra and the Mikkeli audience I expressed the wish to continue the popular tradition of masterclasses in Mikkeli. I sincerely hope that wish will come true, since several students have already asked me about the dates. I hope to have some news about that soon!

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With Daniil Kharitonov and Valery Gergiev backstage at Mikaeli

Friday 16 September 2016

Helsinki to Paris to Chicago

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With composer John Adams in Chicago

After I had officially finished my spring season it was a time to relax and do some traveling, to reconnect with people and make new contacts. I managed to see one of my former teachers, David Zinman conducting the Finnish RSO in Helsinki - despite his age, David still manages a very busy schedule as a conductor! After meeting him I was off to Paris to meet my dear friend and colleague Marlon Chen for one last time before he moves to Leipzig. We went to see the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France with Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducting Sibelius 4, and I also could catch up with the Bulgarian-born concertmaster of the orchestra, Svetlin Roussev, who is busy trying to develop the orchestra life in his original home country. Then we went to a beautiful performance of Tristan with the Orchestre National de France and Daniele Gatti, and next day could listen to some Bruckner with him as well. Back in Finland I enjoyed some sports (including watching some games of Finnish baseball - check it out!), and then continued my sports holiday in Chicago taking part in an aikido seminar at Chicago Aikikai. In Chicago I also ran into composer John Adams in a concert of contemporary music! I also was planning to observe some rehearsals of Chicago Symphony by Christoph von Dohnanyi, but amid some health concerns I was not allowed in. Too bad, but Christoph being already 87 I understand. This little round trip really charged me for the beginning festival season. I can't recommend enough to my musician colleagues to use their every chance to travel to interesting cities with rich cultural life - it is totally worth the money and effort.

Friday 19 August 2016

Prokofiev, Clara and Schumann

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Orchestra rehearsal at Kuopio Music Centre

My spring season finale was a concert dedicated to 125 years of Prokofiev, and it was also a joint effort between Kuopio Symphony orchestra and St Michel Strings. We rehearsed in Kuopio, and then performed the program twice, in Kuopio and in Mikkeli. The last time I conducted the Kuopio Symphony was at Savonlinna Opera Festival four years ago, but this was my actual concert debut with them and in the great acoustic of the Kuopio Music Center.

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Acoustic rehearsal with Clara at Mikaeli

I could again consider myself lucky for having the wonderful Clara-Jumi Kang as my soloist, playing one of her favorite concertos, Prokofiev's 2nd violin concerto. I was happy we could meet so soon after our previous project with was my Mariinsky Theatre debut with a full Sibelius program. In Kuopio and Mikkeli I conducted also Prokofiev's 1st symphony "Classical" and Schumann's 3rd symphony "Rhenish". At least I found it a lovely coincidence that we had both Clara and Schumann in the same program (which musician doesn't think of Clara Schumann if they name their daughter Clara!).

There was another nice coincidence (and a pleasant reunion) when just four days later I met in Helsinki David Zinman who came to conduct the Finnish Radio Orchestra, and they had Schumann's "Rhenish" in their program as well!

Thursday 28 July 2016

Rodrigo and Schubert with Saimaa Sinfonietta

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The second last concert of my spring season was a Saimaa Sinfonietta concert, which is the regular collaboration St Michel Strings has with the Lappeenranta City Orchestra. Despite the traveling and other complications in the organizing side, these concerts have been very rewarding to the musicians in both orchestras, because they allow more variety in the repertoire, and more comfort especially for the string players.

One of the things that makes me happy these days is the chance to work with people I know from my student times. For that reason for example the Turku Philharmonic is a nice place to return to, with half a dozen of players who studied in the same schools with me. This time, too I felt lucky, since my soloist was Petri Kumela with whom I share the past in the Helsinki Conservatory back when I was still a cellist and did not have any interest in conducting. Petri is an excellent classical guitarist whose recordings have gathered rave reviews in the recent years.

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Our program was the ever-popular Aranjuez Concerto by Rodrigo, and the youthful 2nd symphony of Schubert. I am still on a roll learning Schubert's music since I heard the excellent performances of Schubert's 1st and 6th symphonies by Riccardo Muti in Chicago a few years back. The performance in Lappeenranta was not at the Town Hall as usual, but in an old wooden church. Some of my friends from the local aikido club came to listen and one of them even wrote a blog entry about my concert!

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The second concert was in the familiar acoustics of the Mikaeli concert hall in Mikkeli. One interesting thing about classical guitar as a solo instrument is how to balance it against the orchestra, which in case of Rodrigo's concerto is not even that big. Petri Kumela helped us a little by using a high end amplifier to boost the guitar's sound just a little for the loud sections. I am just wondering how did people do it in the 40's when amplifying was out of the question.

I really enjoyed this cooperation and we also got nice reviews. I right away had a chance to hear Petri Kumela again, because after the concert both of us headed towards St. Petersburg, me to listen to Sergey Prokofiev's 125th birthday celebrations (a marathon of concerts by Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra) and Petri to play some modern guitar pieces and flamenco at the Elena Obraztsova Cultural Center.

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