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Wednesday 9 August 2017

Celebrating in Sofia

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Chopin second piano concerto with Seong-Jin Cho and the Sofia Philharmonic

My last concert this season was my debut in Bulgaria with the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. I did not have any prior knowledge of this orchestra, nor had I ever visited Bulgaria before, but I was very excited to go there after recommendation by the great Bulgarian violinist Svetlin Roussev. One funny detail was the fact that the first rehearsal day would be my birthday, so I decided I will celebrate it with great music doing my favorite thing (conducting) and relaxing in the warm climate (after the horribly cold and rainy Finnish spring) and maybe enjoying the delicious local cuisine.

Despite some problems with rerouted flights I got a great start with the orchestra from day one (or maybe they were just extra polite on my birthday). The rest of the week was equally enjoyable, and I cannot recall the last time when the chemistry between myself and the orchestra was this good. On the plate I had the 2nd symphony of Jean Sibelius, which used to be my favorite symphony alongside Mozart 40 when I was young, and I still love it. After some further flight trouble my piano soloist Seong-Jin Cho - the winner of the 2015 Chopin competition - arrived in town, and we enjoyed similarly easy rapport while working on Chopin's 2nd piano concerto.

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Exhausted but happy. Finishing my season on a high note in Sofia.

I was a bit concerned when some musicians told me that late June is not a popular season for orchestra concerts, but to my astonishment the hall was totally packed come concert time. Seong-Jin Cho had to play two encores before the audience let him go after the Chopin concerto. The second half with Sibelius was full of great moments, and it was actually also webcast in an experiment to try out the equipment before the next season's launch of Sofia Philharmonic's official regular webcasts.

Saying goodbye to the orchestra was very emotional after such a triumph to end my concert season. Luckily I am coming back to the Sofia Philharmonic in two years of time, and back to conduct in Bulgaria already next season!

Sunday 6 August 2017

My ERSO debut and the last doctoral concert

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At the Estonia Concert Hall with ERSO

This year I finally had time to get seriously back to my doctoral studies at EMTA (Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre), and the big challenge for this spring was to organise my fourth and final doctoral concert. The three earlier concerts I did with the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra in Finland, but by the recommendation of the Estonian conductor and choirmaster Tõnu Kaljuste I had the possibility of conducting ERSO (The Estonian National Orchestra) in a matinee concert as part of Kaljuste's Nargenfestival and the Tallinn Old Town Days.

The topic of my doctoral work is the three symphonies of the Finnish composer Leevi Madetoja, and in this concert I revisited his first symphony (which by the way is also the topic of my thesis which is due later this year). To honor the 100-year jubilee of Finnish independence I built a Finnish program around this piece - the rest of the works were Swans by Väinö Raitio, Karelia Suite by Jean Sibelius, and a shorter tone poem Dance Vision by Leevi Madetoja.

Our rehearsal schedule was very challenging due to the busy week with all kinds of concerts and rehearsals for ERSO, so there was a four day gap between my rehearsals and the actual concert (I cannot recall any other instance with such a weird scheduling). Luckily we also had a short dress rehearsal on the concert day and could repeat what we had been learning the previous week. With the exception of the Karelia Suite all the repertoire was new to ERSO. Despite the difficulties the concert was a success, and hopefully it will not stay as the only occasion ever when ERSO played Madetoja!

Monday 3 April 2017

Evgeny Onegin - a grass-roots opera

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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

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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.

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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!

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