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Feeling the music (on John Storgårds)

Internationally and domestically active conductor, John Storgårds prefers to conduct music composed with both hearts and brains – and does it with exceptional emotion and sincerity.

Photo: Jussi Puikkonen


BY Andrew Mellor

Allow me to fill you in on some recent happenings in my hometown of London. Last spring, the BBC Symphony Orchestra was part-way through playing the seven symphonies of Jean Sibelius. Before Christmas there had been a surprise. Sakari Oramo made his debut with the orchestra conducting the Third Symphony; three months later he was announced as its new chief conductor from 2013. Then, in April, another surprise: John Storgårds arrived with a typically rich programme topped-off by the Fifth Symphony. He did something few conductors manage and that not even Oramo had before him: he made the BBC’s flagship orchestra play as though it were feeling every note from the very depths of its collective heart.

A surprise, because that’s not really the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s style. It normally leaves the edge-ofseat stuff to its sister ensemble, the BBC Philharmonic – the broadcasting orchestra in the north of England. Storgårds has been Principal Guest Conductor at the Philharmonic for almost a year, so he knows all about the differences. “I’ve actually worked with all four of the big BBC orchestras now,” he says. So can he tell us all about their strange idiosyncrasies? He laughs. “I have to be careful with Sakari’s new job! Honestly and not diplomatically, I like both the BBC Symphony and the BBC Philharmonic. But I can see the difference, and the Phil, yes, there is some kind of will and wildness and energy that fits very well with me and I felt it the first time I worked with them.”

Lapland – Helsinki

Like Oramo, he was offered his BBC job after that first concert. “It was easy to say yes,” he says, “it was exactly the right kind of thing to fit into my situation now.” By which he means his life in Finland – his leadership of the Chamber Orchestra of Lapland and the Helsinki Philharmonic. Those jobs came after years of quiet, hard professional work: as concertmaster of the Avanti Chamber Orchestra (alternating with Sakari Oramo) and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, to Jorma Panula’s conducting class and eventually his first ‘big’ position, principal conductor of the Tampere Philharmonic. It was with that ensemble that he gave a performance of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony in a small London hall in 2007 that bordered on the terrifying. It felt as close as possible to that chilling critical alignment of the work with Barkbröd – the period of famine in the Finland which forced its people to eat the bark from trees. Those of us who were seeing Storgårds for the first time made a note of the name.

He remembers that Tampere tour with a smile. “I worked the same way in Tampere as I do here,” he says, “I was after the same things.”

‘Here’ is Helsinki. We’re talking in his room deep inside the Musiikkitalo, six months to the day since he conducted a fiery Tapiola at the hall’s opening concert. Last night, he took his Helsinki Philharmonic through a lean, glistening Nielsen Inextinguishable and a silky, multi-textured account of Madetoja’s Kullervo. The orchestra is sounding more and more like one of the most individual and refined in Europe. “I have tried to get rid of the ‘thick’ approach which was connected to Finlandia Hall,” Storgårds explains. “I want to get the Helsinki Philharmonic to become a flexible, many-sided orchestra which is good for doing all possible styles of music – Mozart and Beethoven on the one hand, Bruckner and Shostakovich on the other.”

A big part of that – the central lubricant to the rapidly changing Helsinki Philharmonic sound – is this building. “With the Musiikkitalo we have far more colours and dynamics in our hands; we can really progress,” Storgårds says, looking comfortable on the angular grey sofa – as though he settled in long ago. So did Finlandia Hall prevent that detailed work? “Well, you couldn’t really make many changes or progress there,” he admits. “Nothing opened up easily and the brass were always playing too loud – they had to.” Perhaps that’s what gave the Helsinki Philharmonic its distinctive bite. From the evidence of last night’s concert, it’s smoothened out considerably; while the ferocity hasn’t gone – it is, in fact, a central part of Storgårds’ podium style – the orchestra has taken on an enviable subtlety and translucence.

Chamber music technique

That is almost certainly connected to Storgårds’ central principle of orchestral performance: that players approach orchestral works like chamber musicians. “I’m frustrated when a big orchestra doesn’t listen and think like a big chamber music group, and I thought the same when I was a concertmaster,” he explains. “I want to help different sections in the orchestra to be aware of what they should hear and be listening to… help them to find the right kind of balances. If the musicians hear the right things, then the audience will too.”

It’s not a new idea; many conductors talk of little else. But nor is it a coincidence that of the four times I’ve seen Storgårds conduct, the orchestras in question have felt unusually empowered and alive. In terms of balance and blend, he appears to make any orchestra excel – even in the acoustic minefields of London. He knows how to find heat and light inside an ensemble, drawing it out without ever letting the sound get too brash. When asked about that, he points it back at an orchestra’s personnel. “The best kind of symphony orchestra is always the kind where people are not just stuck doing their own job but are part of one big string quartet, where everyone is actively into that,” he believes. “I’d hate to be that kind of conductor who stands there and beats the rhythms for everyone to follow. That’s not my kind of conducting.”

His kind of conducting, to an outside observer, appears unfussy, natural and sincere. There’s certainly something of the ‘facilitator’ about it. His isn’t the idiosyncratic technique of a Vänskä or a Segerstam, but more an extension of his easy but commanding physical character off the podium. “Nowadays I feel much more free and comfortable in my conducting. I haven’t thought so distinctly about technique for quite a long time,” he says. He draws the comparison with playing the violin; you learn the technique, solidify it, then move on to ‘feel’ the music. “I hope that all I’m doing physically has become more honest and related to the music,” he says.

Different territories, same approach

In rehearsal with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Storgårds appears completely at ease; his English that bit more natural than it was in Helsinki, his body language typically playful and fluid. He begins the preconcert general rehearsal with a simple “good afternoon” and an immediate upbeat. He last worked with these players over a year ago, but he’s happy to look them straight in the eye. Over the course of Delius’s Walk to the Paradise Garden, he makes only three short comments. The players seem to appreciate his habit of not using two sentences when a few words will suffice. “Let’s save some power for tonight,” he says before they play through the Sibelius.

It sounds initially as if they ignore him, but in the evening it’s clear that they didn’t. In the concert Storgårds is intensely animated towards the end of the first movement and draws urgency and power from the players in a strong-willed but detailed performance. As the music arrives at that movement’s sudden, manic mid-air ending the audience can’t help but gasp. You don’t have to wait long for a Sibelius Fifth from one of London’s five symphony orchestras – the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played it just two nights before across town – but many tonight feel as though they’ve heard something quite new.

“I have to be myself no matter which orchestra I’m with,” Storgårds says. “I have to do the same job and be totally into getting what I want. It can feel different of course, especially when you have a position with an orchestra. I have different expectations of what the BBC Philharmonic want from me and what I can do with them… what kind of wild things I can play!” As the broadcasting orchestra in Manchester, the BBC Philharmonic errs towards unusual repertoire rather more than its companion at The Bridgewater Hall, the Hallé. Storgårds was brought on board to work in-depth on Sibelius and Nielsen – performing and recording the complete 13 symphonies of both composers for Chandos – but he will explore “very different styles… and some contemporary stuff too,” he promises, just as he has with his pioneering Lapland Chamber Orchestra in Rovaniemi, and has to an extent in Helsinki, too.

The subject of programming draws the fiercest, most declamatory talk I hear from Storgårds. “If you look globally at the situation now, there are not enough orchestras taking risks,” he says. “I’m aware that here in Finland, historically, this orchestra [Helsinki Philharmonic] is the more traditional orchestra and the radio orchestra [FRSO] are supposed to do more premieres and more Finnish composers. That’s fine. But it’s important that we don’t therefore say, OK, it’s fine to just do Brahms and all this. No way. I have to make colourful seasons and specific programmes that have different ideas. The BBC orchestras have exactly this kind of thinking, and I like that.”

Honest music

True. But while the UK orchestral scene lags behind that of Finland in terms of probing programming that delves deep into musical heritages and futures, the BBC ensembles have always bucked the trend. Storgårds’ programme at the Barbican proved as much: Delius, Frank Bridge (Benjamin Britten’s teacher) and a UK premiere from Einojuhani Rautavaara preceded the Sibelius.

The conductor has a distinct eye for a good programme full of unseen musical and contextual threads. In Helsinki the night before our interview, the central work was Kalevi Aho’s contrabassoon concerto. “For me the style of Aho’s music fits very well between Madetoja and Nielsen because it has something of both,” he says. “It has darkness and some Finnishness which is certainly in the Madetoja, and on the other hand it has surprises and craziness and humour that in a way the Nielsen has.”

When asked what he wouldn’t conduct, Storgårds stalls. “For me the most important thing is that I feel the human being behind the music – whatever style or time or country it is from,” he says eventually. “It’s about someone who has really put his whole heart honestly into making music, and not producing some kind of…” he trails off. “Well, I’m not so crazy about Puccini. For me, in the opera field or otherwise, there are some composers who know exactly which buttons to push for their audience, and beautiful music comes out. That’s not enough – in the opera world or otherwise. I’m much more interested to find a very honest piece into which someone has put all their brains and their heart.”

Kullervo by Leevi Madetoja is just that, and bang in the centre of the late-Romantic and 20th-century music Storgårds has been exploring with the Helsinki Philharmonic and to which the orchestra seems so stylistically attuned. Could we hear that sort of piece outside Finland? “Actually I have already suggested that piece itself for a tour project, so we’ll see.”

He talks, too, of Schumann, Bruckner and Mahler – three composers clearly dear to him. As a violinist, Storgårds gave the Finnish premieres of a number of works by the latter composer. And of course there will be Sibelius with the BBC Philharmonic. “They have a natural feeling for Sibelius which I’ve found in Britain in general,” he says, having already conducted the Sixth and Seventh symphonies with them and shortly preparing the Third. “I’m very eager to do a lot of music with the best possible orchestras. It’s the same feeling you have as a player – to play with the best possible violin and with the best possible colleagues. I’m eager to get further and I’m very glad if things are opening up.”

A world stage

Viewed from outside Finland, things have certainly opened up for Storgårds since that striking London concert with the Tampere Philharmonic five years ago. And perhaps the story inside Finland isn’t so different. He was yet to take up his position with the Helsinki Philharmonic then; the Musiikkitalo and its wealth of opportunity wasn’t even at the construction stage. He suggests he’s mid-way through his Helsinki Philharmonic tenure, “this isn’t the sort of orchestra that needs a chief conductor for 15 years, it’s normal and good for them to have a bit of circulation.” And so the prospect of increasing work abroad looms. Underneath all the discussion of that, he emphasises his desire to improve and the importance of family life – his wife in Lapland and their two small boys.

But you don’t have to look hard to see the effects of Storgårds’ greater global exposure. Recently he has been linked to the vacancy left by James Levine at the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “Forget about that,” Storgårds says with a laugh. But he’s upfront about his ambition. “I’m getting close to fifty – very close. If I don’t take the chance now to go and work there [America] with really good orchestras, then when should I? But I have to be able to combine this with being as good a family man as I can. I have to think about the details.”

Then, in his gentle, rolling Finnish accent, he lays his ambition out in a very characteristic way. “I want to develop, but I’m glad that I’ve really had to work. I had to work my way into a position as a violinist – not coming from a specifically known musical family – and it’s been the same with conducting. It’s all connected to good work, and that’s why I feel good about it. I feel that now, if I achieve good things anywhere in the world, they have come at the right time. And I’m worth it, because I worked myself to get it.”

It’s hard to explain how this big, powerful musician looks and sounds when he says those words, but there’s not a shred of arrogance or expectation in his voice, nor any sense that he’s justifying unease with his accomplishments, just a slight hint of embarrassment at talking so openly about success and ambition. Lots of conductors are good at feigning humility because they know it will endear them to the public. Storgårds doesn’t even try. Ironically, it makes you admire him all the more. But what it really does, I suspect, is allow him to do his job – stood in front of orchestras large and small – just the way he wants and needs to. A good thing, too, because that happens to be delivering some of the best performances of orchestral music I’ve had the privilege to witness.

Andrew Mellor is Reviews Editor at Gramophone and founder-editor of Nordic culture website He has been struggling to learn Finnish for five years.