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A bird of his own feather

by Karoliina Vesa

Musiikkitalo of Helsinki represents a number of challenges for conductor Hannu Lintu, forthcoming Chief Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. He foresees not only a brilliant sound but increasing competition.

Hannu Lintu is bursting with adrenalin, as always after a dress rehearsal. “I am incredibly nervous and cannot stay still. Then I sleep like a log for a couple of hours, and at the concert I am Mr. Cool. Sometimes I have even overslept and woken up to someone phoning me to say that, actually, the orchestra is already on stage and the audience is waiting,” says Lintu, Chief Conductor of the Tampere Filharmonia.

Lintu has been at Tampere since 2009,  but for the past six months he has been regularly answering questions about Musiikkitalo, the new Music Centre in Helsinki and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The FRSO made an expected move to sign him on as their new Chief Conductor when Sakari Oramo announced that he would be stepping down next spring. Lintu is staying on in Tampere until 2013, but he will be appearing as Principal Guest Conductor with the FRSO in the 2012-2013 season. Lintu is a verbally expressive, talented and sparkling personality who has attracted exceptional media attention beyond the usual musical circles.

The Tampere Filharmonia is not amused with this new development, since for all his quirks Lintu is well liked by the orchestra and has achieved an improvement in sound little short of miraculous in a relatively small time. Also, there is a history of brain drain to the south, as the previous Chief Conductor of the Tampere Filharmonia, John Storgårds, left to conduct the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. Although every member of the Tampere Filharmonia signed a petition asking Lintu to stay, new challenges weighed more in the balance for him. “Admittedly Tampere has seen huge improvements, but I am very much looking forward to working with the FRSO at the Music Centre,” Lintu says.

Towards a new acoustic

Hannu Lintu’s future employer, the FRSO, first tried out the main hall of the Music Centre in May. Used to the demoralising acoustics of Finlandia Hall and the House of Culture, the orchestra members were ecstatic at this historic moment. Tears were shed, hugs were exchanged, and the soloist at the rehearsal, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya, declared that the hall is one of the best in the world. Lintu himself was abroad at the time but says that the musicians’ descriptions of the dark yet transparent sound of the hall conforms to his own impressions.

“I have visited the Music Centre twice this spring, and it was immediately obvious that the main hall is a great success. There is just the right amount of reverb. There is potential for ringing overtones there, which the main auditorium of Tampere Hall does not really have.”

Earlier in the spring, Hannu Lintu predicted that the FRSO would have a harder time adapting to the Music Centre than the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. The FRSO has had to cope with two different acoustics in its rehearsal processes – the aggressive sound of the House of Culture as opposed to the stuffy Finlandia Hall – whereas the Helsinki Philharmonic has been at Finlandia Hall ever since moving in.

But following recent visits to the new hall, Lintu has changed his tune. “My first thought now was that the hall will fit the FRSO like a glove. The orchestra only needs to relax, to realise that they do not need to play as viciously as at Finlandia Hall. Now we can start looking for the quieter end of the dynamic scale,” Lintu says.

Lintu will have his magical first encounter with the orchestra at the Music Centre at an exploratory rehearsal in early summer. The rehearsal will feature Sibelius’s two last symphonies and the Kullervo Symphony, the idea being to test how a choir will fit into the hall, both acoustically and logistically. Performing large-scale works at the Music Centre is a particular cause for concern for Hannu Lintu.

“The hall is very sensitive to quiet sounds, but it is anyone’s guess how it will respond to extremely loud sounds. The new concert hall in Copenhagen, for instance, will not tolerate a sound above a specific level. It may well happen that works like La damnation de Faust by Berlioz or Mahler’s Eighth Symphony will turn out to be simply too big for the hall in terms of their sound or indeed of their logistics.”

Sibelius and young Finns

The main hall of the Music Centre has been described as being ideal for the music of composers like Ravel, Debussy and Ligeti, full of rich orchestral colours. Hannu Lintu, on the other hand, is even more curious to hear how Haydn, Sibelius and contemporary Finnish composers will sound in there. The latter are among the nearest and dearest of many Finnish conductors, thanks to Jorma Panula’s legendary conducting class.

“Panula could not stand Beethoven, and no one ever dared bring any Beethoven into the class,” Lintu remembers with a grin. “Instead, we began every term with Haydn, and Finnish conductors seem to conduct a lot of Haydn even today. I have a half dozen of his symphonies in my repertoire, with my own sets of orchestral parts with my phrasings pencilled in.” Lintu also likes to conduct music by Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler and Richard Strauss.

Lintu freely admits that he has a problem with certain composers in the classical canon. Though his repertoire is broad, there are composers whose music he prefers not to conduct. “I think it is judicious to admit up front that one’s mentality simply does not accommodate all kinds of music. This is not a value judgement on the composers, it is simply a question of temperament. Mozart and Schubert do not suit me at all. Tchaikovsky also gives me a great deal of trouble. I do conduct his music, but with great reservations. Though to my surprise I often do really well with Tchaikovsky,” says Lintu with a crooked smile.

With the FRSO, Lintu aims to take up at least the symphonies of Sibelius, estimating that he will be recording the complete cycle with the orchestra by 2015. He is also intrigued by the idea of how works by Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg will sound in the Music Centre. “There will also be piano concertos by Mozart and symphonies by Haydn,” Lintu promises.

The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra commissions and premieres several new Finnish compositions each year. Lintu has previously recorded music by Jouni Kaipainen, Kaija Saariaho and Einojuhani Rautavaara, and he has conducted a lot of contemporary music in concert. His preference is for pieces that are musical above all. “I do love mathematics and architecture, but the most theoretical sort of avant-garde in music is not really my cup of tea. Sometimes it can be fun to tackle insane technical conducting challenges, but I feel that the music should be generally comprehensible,” he explains.

Lindberg, Saariaho and Rautavaara are fairly well known worldwide, but there have been no recent breakthroughs by young Finnish composers. When asked about the young generation, Lintu falls silent for a while. “There are so very many composers in the world today, and they depend more on publishers and agents than ever. I feel that people only make breakthroughs with large-scale works these days,” he says carefully and goes on: “We have a project planned with the Sibelius Academy to run for three years, involving six composition students. The idea is that in they would develop an orchestral work with the Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra in the first year and with the FRSO in the second year. In the third year, we would perform and record those works. It is an internationalisation chain similar to that which is already in place for performing artists. We will also be in touch with foreign performers, festivals and publishers in the project.”

Career and expression

Hannu Lintu, now 43, has progressed quietly and discreetly towards the top. He has conducted a variety of orchestras around the globe, many of them in the USA; indeed, there is a rumour that he was approached to become the musical director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra.

Success has not fallen into his lap, however. Currently represented by Harrison Parrott, Hannu Lintu was tipped to become the next Finnish high-flying conductor in the mid-1990s. The auspices were good: he won a Nordic conducting competition in 1994 and was invited to become Chief Conductor of the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra a few years later. Then things began to go sour. Chemistries clashed in Turku, and Lintu was not pleased with the orchestra’s work motivation and development. He left under a cloud in 2001. His next post was with the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, which he conducted from 2002 to 2005 before becoming fed up with the orchestra’s unstable finances. He decided to continue his career without a regular orchestral appointment.

The rocky road of Hannu Lintu’s early career has been ascribed, of all things, to his habitual facial expression. Lintu reportedly tends to put on an ironic smirk that annoys the more sensitive sort of musician. “I first heard in Turku that my face didn’t fit,” he says. “Musicians who were my good friends would tell me to stop grinning all the time, and I had no idea what they were talking about. When I finally realised what they meant, my first reaction was: what business is it of theirs what I look like? they just need to play the music!” But it did not work out that way, and Lintu acquired a reputation for having a temper. He himself says that he was very tense at the time. “I have had a problem with my nerves ever since I started my musical career as an instrumentalist. I tried to talk to Jorma Panula about this, but he was unsympathetic, to put it mildly. It is no help if someone tells you not to be nervous.”

Lintu chose to practice. He reasoned that he could conquer his tenseness by conducting an orchestra sufficiently many times. “String players need time to learn to control their bow hand. I worked very hard and found that it was having an effect. Interestingly, no one ever talks about what kind of facial expressions an orchestra can pull without distracting the conductor.”

But experience has also brought with it an understanding of the sensitivity of orchestras. Lintu says that much of this is due to orchestras being critical of young conductors as a matter of course. And everything that is different is annoying. At some point this situation suddenly reverses itself, and annoying quirks turn out to be a conductor’s characteristic personality traits. Lintu adds, with characteristic deadpan, that his famous smirk never went away. “But I have learned to deploy it consciously as a smart weapon, to say what on earth do you think you are doing? Some people still seem to be unsettled by it.”

The Finnish conducting community

The first moments in front of a new orchestra are crucial. Hannu Lintu reports that some orchestras desire a conductor to engage in social activities and crack jokes, while others want to focus on the music. One must quickly sense what the mood of an orchestra is.

“We Europeans have rather thick skins. You do not need to gift-wrap your feedback; you can shoot straight and even snap at people without upsetting them. In the USA, this sort of thing does not work at all.” If the chemistries of an orchestra and a conductor do not meet, the week ahead will be painful for both parties. This sometimes happens abroad. “I am fairly good at resisting the collective force of an orchestra and do not shy away from conflict. It is more difficult to deal with outbursts following a night out on the town,” he says.

Lintu reports that he has developed a variety of rehearsal methods for guest appearances over the years. But working with an orchestra of his own is always particularly rewarding. “The Tampere Filharmonia for instance already does things with rhythm and articulation without me having to ask for them. I do not talk about sonority all that much, but I notice that I am having an impact on it. Everything affects everything else. If you change the tempo, you change the sound too.”

In musical interpretation, Lintu says he prefers to remain true to the score, trying to dig out its every detail. This is not to say that he has no vision of his own. “I do like to do things my way. I am often told that a particular piece sounds different when I conduct it. They never say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing,” he says with amusement.

In a tough spot, Lintu has the conducting community to rely on, including people such as Susanna Mälkki, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Leif Segerstam and Jan Söderblom. He considers cooperation among colleagues to be inestimably important. “There are many things about a conductor’s work that not even a musician can understand. One can be completely alone with some problem or other, and it is important to have people to talk to if necessary.” When conductors meet, the sessions easily drag on until the following morning. Sharing experiences is important, because competition on the international market is stiff.

“Sometimes I almost feel sorry for foreign colleagues who do not have a support network like this. Out there people are pulling the rug out from under you and elbowing you on the way up. We Finns do not exactly have a mafia, but we give each other a hand,” Hannu Lintu says.

Competition is not getting easier

Hannu Lintu believes that things happen and evolve of their own accord, slowly and imperceptibly. If one has a goal, it will eventually be attained. This happened to him. As a child, his parents took him to the Savonlinna Opera Festival to see Verdi’s Don Carlos, conducted by the then slim and curly-haired Leif Segerstam. The idea of conducting an orchestra made an impression on Lintu, who was already an enthusiastic amateur musician at the time. He eventually attained this goal, but not by pursuing it bloody-mindedly to the exclusion of everything else. “It is an incredible coincidence that it was Leif Segerstam who told me of this theory of the ‘cybernetic’ unfolding of events – fifteen years after that moment in Savonlinna,” he says.

In August 2013, Lintu will face the greatest challenge so far in his conducting career. As the first Chief Conductor to step in front of the FRSO at the new Music Centre, he will be the focus of great expectations. For the first time in history, the two leading orchestras in Helsinki will be rehearsing and giving concerts under the same roof. Even their offices will be on the same corridor, although the managers’ offices, mercifully, are at opposite ends of that corridor. Hannu Lintu is not intimidated by the competition.

“It will certainly be tough, no doubt about that. Ruthless comparisons will be made, and it will no longer be a question of distinguishing between the Classical-Romantic repertoire of the Helsinki Philharmonic and the more modern repertoire of the FRSO. Both orchestras will have to put their best foot forwards in terms of programming, soloists and conductors. Quality will be the deciding factor,” Lintu says.

Other parameters will come into play at the Music Centre. There are plans for concerts where Lintu will be giving pre-concert talks on Sibelius’s symphonies, much like Bernstein used to do. The radio and other media will be exploited increasingly. The world is dominated by the media, and Lintu intends to ensure that the FRSO does not fall behind the times. Not everyone likes where the arts world is going, and Lintu is well aware of this.

“You can safeguard the sanctity of art in your own approach to it or in concert performances, but you cannot isolate music from the rest of society. We must accept that the world changes. These are tough times for us, which is all the more reason for using all means available.”


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Photo: Veikko Kähkönen