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Thursday 22 January 2015

2014, a year in review

Estonia
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!

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Live performances from Mikkeli

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Last spring my orchestra St. Michel Strings started making live webcasts from select concerts, first of which was Pergolesi's Stabat Mater in April. Recently we webcast the Bach concert which I wrote about in my last blog entry, and the latest live streaming was our concert to celebrate the Finnish independence day. We played a full Sibelius program, starting with rarely played Valse Romantique from incidental music to "Kuolema" (Death), followed by the Violin concerto played by the talented South Korean violinist Hyunsu "Zia" Shin. We finished the program with Sibelius' 3rd symphony and played Valse Triste as an encore.

You can find the concerts behind the following YouTube links. For some reason the synchronization is not always the best possible - often the sound appears before the corresponding image. But I hope you can anyway enjoy the beautiful music making!

St. Michel Strings concert on November 20, 2014: Holmqvist, Kokkonen, Bach with Matias Häkkinen and Sami Junnonen

Saimaa Sinfonietta concert on December 6, 2014: Sibelius with Hyunsu Shin

Tuesday 18 November 2014

I've come full circle

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I have never kept it as a secret that I have a favorite musical work, which is the Six Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, and especially the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, which was instrumental (pun intended) in my decision to become a professional musician exactly twenty years ago. Listening to my (then) newly acquired recording by Nicolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus Wien I had the closest I have come to a religious experience in my life (extra points for anyone who can guess the movement and the exact place in the score it happened) and decided that this is for me the only way to go. I must dedicate my life to something as great as the music I was listening to.

Now, twenty years later, I have the fortune to rehearse the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto with my orchestra St. Michel Strings and two brilliant Finnish musicians, harpsichordist Matias Häkkinen and flautist Sami Junnonen, and today I was happy to notice that being immersed in this masterpiece still raises all my hairs up. After the rehearsal I paused for a moment to think "why" I am a professional musician, and what is the quality (if there is such) that gives me the right to stand in front of my colleagues and demand them to play in a certain way. Personally, I think every conductor should have a reason why they have this right.

Every conductor - every musician in fact - has of course their own set of preferences, and after thinking hard about what is my strongest point I had to conclude that it is phrasing. Even though I am many times obsessed by form and rhythmic precision while rehearsing, I think phrasing is the thing which comes to me most naturally, and no wonder - going back twenty years in time I suddenly remembered that my favorite reading back then was Harnoncourt's book "Musik als Klangrede". I cannot say I understood his points fully then, but they no doubt have been brewing in my mind all this time and finally come to fruition as I found my musical home in conducting.

Music is a form of communication, and we, as instrumentalists, have to take care how we deliver the message of the composer. First we need to understand it, and then choose the proper manner to bring it out with our instruments, in such a way that, to quote Mozart, "music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music." Isn't that brilliantly put, by the way? Good old Mozart!

As a conductor I need to make sure that even in a densely woven texture all the important voices are clearly articulated. The phrases should breathe and sing, and carry on the conversation. And who knows, maybe another reason why this aspect of music is close to my heart is the fact that my son has a speech defect and articulating the message so that the receiver understands it fully often requires extra effort from us? Just a thought that crossed my mind now... Anyway, thinking about all of this and realizing how everything started with the same music and the same challenges so many years ago made me feel that I have come full circle. And still I feel that I am in the right place, doing what I do.

After sharing this mini-revelation with my readers, I am also happy to invite you to check out my concert later this week at www.e-concerthouse.com. It will be webcast live on Thursday, November 20 at 19:00 Finnish time. The program will be Holmqvist Petite suite baroque, Kokkonen Durch einen Spiegel and J.S. Bach Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor and the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto.

Sunday 14 September 2014

Season opening x 3

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Opening the season of the Krasnoyarsk Philharmonic with Vadim Repin

After the summer I had no less than three chances to open my 2014-15 concert season. My first concert after the long and well deserved summer break was with the Swedish pianist Martin Malmgren (for him it was probably the end of his summer festival season, since his concert was one in the series of "The summer's young artists"). It was essentially a piano recital but Martin wanted to include one work for a larger ensemble, and that was Hindemith's Kammermusik No. 2. He had invited a wonderful group of musicians to perform the piece with us - some of them still students at the Sibelius Academy, some of them seasoned orchestra professionals. After the concert we had the chance to test the sauna facilities of the Helsinki Music Center! Hindemith is a composer I like a lot, so I of course enjoyed working with this music, and we luckily have some plans to perform more of it together with Martin. I was also happy to have this kind of "soft landing" back to work before I went on to conduct longer programs.

In Mikkeli I opened my concert season with St. Michel Strings, and for that occasion we had invited a number of extras to be able to perform the First Brandenburg Concerto of Johann Sebastian Bach. This, of course, was part of my Brandenburg cycle which I started exactly one year ago. Our program was heavy on Bach, since we also played his Orchestral Suite No. 1 and Arvo Pärt's Collage über B-A-C-H. We finished the night with the wonderful Symphony No. 17 by Mozart. It was great to work with my own orchestra again after the summer, and I was happy that our audience welcomed us warmly as well. We rewarded their applause by playing the Air from Bach's 3rd Orchestral Suite as an encore.

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At work with Vadim Repin and the Krasnoyarsk Symphony Orchestra

After Mikkeli I headed way more east for a very pleasant invitation. The Krasnoyarsk Philharmonic had invited me to open their season with a dream program - Shostakovich Festive Overture, Bruch Violin Concerto with Vadim Repin as soloist, and Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony. Krasnoyarsk lies in the southern edge of Siberia, nested approximately between Kazakhstan and Mongolia - you get the picture! To fly there I had to make a stop at Moscow, and there I stayed at my friend Ivan Velikanov, who is a young Russian conductor specializing in early music. From Moscow I had to fly five more hours towards east, before I reached Krasnoyarsk.

Krasnoyarsk Philharmonic has several ensembles and artists working for them, and one of the ensembles is the 105-strong Krasnoyarsk Symphony Orchestra. They perform in the Great Hall of the Krasnoyarsk Philharmonic, which has recently undergone an acoustical renovation, and to me the working acoustics felt really good. I also heard no complaints from my colleagues listening to the rehearsals and the concert. Our rehearsals went on in a very productive atmosphere, and despite having a flu I felt energized after every rehearsal.

For me it was a real honour to perform the pieces by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky with a Russian orchestra. I studied this music a long time ago as a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and the basis of my way of hearing this music comes from my professor Leonid Korchmar. I of course have heard great interpretations of the pieces, first and foremost by Yevgeny Mravinsky, but nevertheless I was intrigued to see how a Russian orchestra would accept the way I, as a Finn, would approach these pieces. Luckily I felt early on in the rehearsals that they accept my point.

A day before the concert I was joined by our violin soloist, Vadim Repin. I had worked with him just once before, and that time in capacity of an assistant conductor, but I was very happy that he remembered me well and we could just jump at work right away. Repin must be one of the easiest soloists to work with - everything he asked from me and the orchestra was very logical and appealed to my musicality. We seemed to instantly find the same wavelength. After our rehearsal together we were rushed into a press conference where I also had an opportunity to exercise my Russian some more!

The concert itself we played for a sold-out hall, and on top of that there was a live webcast which could be seen from all over the world - several of my friends abroad managed to watch it as well. The best compliment of the season so far I received from a violinist who had come all the way from St. Petersburg to hear the concert. "That was real Tchaikovsky!" he exclaimed when he appeared backstage after the concert. I left Krasnoyarsk with warm impressions and will be happy to return there later this year.

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