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Friday 14 March 2014

Alea jacta est - Results of the competition are here


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.

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


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

Sunday 16 February 2014

Gribanov and Song with Saimaa Sinfonietta

Conductor Piotr Gribanov and violinist Ji-Won Song in rehearsal

My orchestra St. Michel Strings regularly joins forces with the Lappeenranta City Orchestra to form a bigger group called Saimaa Sinfonietta which gives a concert in both cities. For my players this is a very welcome opportunity to play symphonic repertoire, since usually we only perform as a string orchestra. This week the conductor was one of my old teachers, Piotr Gribanov, so there was no way I was going to miss the concert.

Originally our soloist for Brahms Violin Concerto was supposed to be Stanislav Izmailov from the Mariinsky Theatre orchestra, but just ten days before the concert he had to pull out because of a hand injury. When he contacted me I was in Seoul conducting Beethoven's 9th, and I started to look for a replacement right away while I was there. Luckily a player I knew from last summer's Great Mountains Music Festival, Ji-Won Song was available and ready to play this difficult work in a very short notice!

The program was great, starting with Beethoven's Coriolan overture, and finishing with Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony. First concert was in Lappeenranta, and it was very enjoyable even though the acoustics of Lappeenranta Town Hall leave a lot to desire. It is a shame that this orchestra has no proper concert hall to perform in (Jyväskylä Orchestra is in a similar difficult situation). The second concert took place in the Martti Talvela concert hall in Mikaeli, our home venue, and the difference in sound was just breathtaking. The attendance was very good and the audience did not want to let the players offstage after the performance! I was very glad that both Piotr Gribanov and Ji-Won Song could make their Finnish debut under such happy circumstances. Hopefully we can hear both of them soon again in Finland!

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Beethoven's 9th in Seoul

Taking a bow at Seoul Arts Center stage

A week ago I returned from Seoul, South Korea, where I had the enormous pleasure to conduct Beethoven's 9th symphony in front of about 1500 people at the Seoul Arts Center. I have written about this piece before, and this was actually the 11th time I was working on "The 9th", but only now I could claim the podium and perform it as a conductor.

As it happens so often, this kind of great chance came about because of a cancellation. Another conductor had managed to double book himself and I had to jump in to save the day. It was a big program - Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre, Beethoven Triple Concerto and the 9th - and even though I was familiar with all the pieces the only one I had conducted before was Danse Macabre, and that was four years ago at my Cleveland Orchestra debut.

The orchestra I worked with is called Seoulphilharmonic (yes, written as one word and not to be confused with the SPO) and it is one of the numerous privately funded orchestras operating in Seoul. It is fascinating that there can be as many as five orchestral concerts every week at the Seoul Arts Center and there is enough audience to fill the hall every time. Equally fascinating is the high number of musicians in Seoul to fill all these orchestras.

We performed the 9th together with the 65-strong Pocheon Municipal Choir, and at first I was a bit alarmed when I heard the choir would only rehearse with us once before the concert day. I had no reason to worry though. The chorus was very well prepared and all the singers had powerful, professionally trained voices. I even had to ask them sing more softly in several occasions! Here's a sample of their singing from the finale on YouTube:


For me it was a moving occasion to finally conduct this masterpiece, and I was very happy that the chance came about so soon. It really was a cherry on the cake this year as I am celebrating my 10th season in the profession! And of course my trip to Korea was not only about hard work at the rehearsals - it was also about meeting friends, seeing new charming places and eating delicious Korean food. I hope to be back in Korea soon again!

Friday 24 January 2014

2nd International Sasha Mäkilä Conducting Masterclass in Mikkeli

Jessica Horsley (UK/Switzerland) - photo by J. Kaarakainen

My 2nd international conducting masterclass gathered in Mikkeli students coming from six different countries just as last year, and they came literally from the "four corners of the earth" representing Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Last year I wrote quite extensively about my ideas in organizing masterclasses, and this year I followed pretty much the same concept as last year. The biggest change probably was limiting the repertoire in advance, which the players of my orchestra St. Michel Strings seemed to appreciate.

Eveliina Aijasaho (Finland) conducting, Leonard Kwon (South Korea/Netherlands) playing - photo by J. Kaarakainen

One other positive change came about when I asked if any of the students would like to perform as a soloist. Leonard Kwon volunteered, and everyone was simply in awe of his virtuosity and natural musicianship when he performed Vivaldi's recorder concerto "La Notte" in the masterclass concert together with Eveliina Aijasaho. Even though only one conductor got to work on this piece it was a valuable lesson for everyone to learn something about time management and communication when dealing with a solo piece. The rest of the repertoire consisted of almost everything Sibelius has ever written for a string orchestra, plus some other classics from Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Britten and Nielsen.

Mark Edwards (UK/Scotland) - photo by J. Kaarakainen

I promised my students an "intense masterclass experience" and I think I made a good effort towards that goal. We had two sessions daily, one with orchestra and one with a pianist (this time a local talent Antti Manninen played the piano), plus we had several lunches and dinners together where we could discuss various topics. I have no idea when the students had time to study on their own, but everyone made clear progress during the week and hopefully left Mikkeli and Finland with a couple of new tools in their conducting toolbag. After the concert we relaxed together in a proper Finnish way by going to sauna (!) and we of course could not skip the Mikkeli night life (which is mainly centered around the sole nightclub in town) - but that's another story!

P.S. If any of my students has the group photo please send it to me and I will add it here!

P.P.S. This year I am going to teach two more masterclasses, in Pärnu, Estonia in May 18 - 24 and again in Mikkeli during the Gergiev Festival in June 27 - July 2. More info on my masterclass website soon!

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