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Saturday 12 November 2016

In Pärnu, again!


After enjoying the sunny Lissabon I returned back to the northeast of Europe, and my next concert was with the Pärnu City Orchestra. Pärnu is of course a familiar destination to me, since I have taught there several conducting masterclasses (the latest just a month before!) and performed there in a joint concert with my former orchestra St Michel Strings. In my cellist past I also visited Pärnu in the ranks of a Finnish-Estonian orchestra called Sinfonietta Odysseus.


The program for this concert was just great. The opener was "Orawa" by the Polish composer Kilar, and this is one of those crowd pleasers that are not so interesting to rehearse (because the idiom is minimalistic) but that really catches fire in the concert. For a long time I had wanted to program this piece, but in Mikkeli there was never a chance to do it. After that we performed Shostakovich piano concerto No. 1, with the trumpet player of the orchestra Karl Vakker, and a young promising Estonian pianist Johan Randvere, who happened to take part in my conducting masterclass in Pärnu a year ago.

I opened the second half with Glazunov's Serenade No. 2 for a small orchestra, and the final piece was Mozart's symphony No. 40. This famous symphony has been one of my favorites since I was a teenager, but this was really the first time I could conduct it in a concert, despite conducting it during my studies both in Russia and Finland and even assisting the late Kurt Masur in Paris when he conducted it. I was so happy finally to perform it, and the Pärnu orchestra did a great job with it. I hope to return to Pärnu many times in the future, both for great standard repertoire like Mozart, and new discoveries like Kilar.

Thursday 20 October 2016

PRÉMIO JOVENS MÚSICOS - Portugal’s national conducting competition

The jury giving feedback to the finalists

This fall I had my first chance to travel to Portugal, when composer Luís Tinoco contacted me and invited me to be a juror in the Prémio Jovens Músicos conducting competition. This competition has existed already from year 1987, but it has earlier only had categories for solo performers and ensembles. This year, to celebrate the 30th edition of the competition, a conducting competition was organized for the first time. It proved to be the most popular of all categories with 33 applications. Based on their application videos 12 young conductors were chosen to appear in front of the Portuguese Symphony Orchestra and a four member jury.

Besides myself, the jurors were Jean-Marc Burfin, a French conductor who has made Portugal his home for a long time already, Joana Carneiro who is probably the most well known Portuguese conductor at the moment, and 90-year old Madame Teresa de Macedo who also was a patroness of the whole competition.

The first round included music from Debussy’s Afternoon of the Faun and Beethoven’s first symphony, and the participants all had 15 minutes to conduct without rehearsing the orchestra. Even though the time was short we could get a very good picture of each competitor’s manual skills, expressive capabilities and their podium charisma. With my experience of about a dozen competitions I thought the level was very high. From this round we chose six to go to the semi-finals and the decision was almost unanimous. The jury also had an advisory orchestra vote to help in the decision after every round.

Nuno Coelho da Silva, 1st prize

The next day we heard six candidates conduct the first movement of the Saint-Saëns cello concerto with Marco Pereira as soloist, and then we heard for the first time some rehearsing in varied repertoire (decided by lottery after the previous round). This time we could notice clear differences in the preparedness of the candidates, mainly judging by their technical solutions. The pieces were all standard repertoire (Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert) so in my opinion you should really use tried and tested methods when it is about a competition, and ask your professor or older colleagues for some advice. This time the jury was unanimous when it was time to decide who goes to the finals.

José Eduardo Gomes, 2nd prize

The final round was very interesting, and we heard for the first time a Portuguese classic - a freely chosen movement from João Domingos Bomtempo’s first symphony. The other repertoire we heard was Beethoven’s Eroica and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and some more Saint-Saëns cello concerto. This time it was not so easy to come to an agreement within the jury, because every candidate showed very good potential (and all of them actually work in the profession already), but they were so different that a fair comparison between them was really hard to make. Finally we decided to give the main prize to Nuno Coelho da Silva, the second prize plus a special orchestra favorite prize to José Eduardo Gomes and the third prize to Jan Wierzba. Congratulations!

Jan Wierzba, 3rd prize

After the competition I stayed for a while in Lissabon to enjoy the warm weather and go to some museums. I also went to listen to the opening concerts of the Festival Jovens Músicos in both the jazz category and the classical soloist category. The concerts were held in the hall of the Gulbenkian Foundation, which is a very interesting actor in the Portuguese cultural and scientific scenes, and this foundation also has a very good orchestra which accompanied the young soloists. Much could be written about Portuguese classical music scene, but I hope to do it when I have a chance to go back and learn more about it!

Tuesday 4 October 2016

My 10th International Conducting Masterclass - Summer in Pärnu


In the beginning of August I returned to Pärnu again, to teach an orchestra conducting masterclass. Hard to believe, but this was already the tenth international workshop that I am teaching! I must admit teaching is something that I really enjoy, and I think all musicians who received good teaching and "made it" in their careers, would do well to share their knowledge and help the next generation. I realize, of course, that not everyone has the pedagogical talent required, but those who do should use it.

This time I had four students who all had plenty of podium time with the excellent Pärnu City Orchestra. Two of the participants were currently studying for their conducting degrees, one is already an established conductor in the United States, and one is a conductor of a children's orchestra in Japan. The repertoire was Prokofiev's symphony No. 1 "Classical", Mozart's violin concerto No. 5 and Mendelssohn's symphony No. 4 "Italian". Our soloist for the Mozart concerto was Triin Ruubel, the concert master of ERSO, the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra.


The template of the masterclass was my usual one - orchestra rehearsals in the mornings, technique sessions in the evenings - and luckily we could again work with two professional pianists so that we had an "orchestra simulator" to try different techniques with. One point on my masterclasses is also spending a lot of time together (for lunches and dinners) to discuss the profession, and we also watched some video clips in the afternoons of great conductors and discussed what we saw.

For our final concert we had some competition, since the city of Pärnu was hosting a huge festival of electronic music. The town was even more full of tourists than usual (Pärnu is a beautiful and popular spa resort), and that sometimes got us in trouble when we tried to find a table for dinner. The concert went well and I was happy to notice how much progress everyone had made during the week. Let's hope we'll have another masterclass in Pärnu next summer!

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


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!

With Daniil Kharitonov and Valery Gergiev backstage at Mikaeli

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