in From the Archives

Juha Kangas: “Raising orchestra is like organic farming”

by Anu Karlson

The moment the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra begins to play, the listener finds himself swept along in a grip that does not relax until the echo of the very last note has died away. It makes no difference whether the piece in question is a masterly miniature by Sibelius or the work of an unfamiliar ballet composer. The listener to this illustrious band is inclined to think that there is, maybe, no such thing as good and bad music, just music suited to different times, places and moods.
Juha Kangas has travelled a long way as a musician, and ended up as, rather than aspiring to be a conductor. Born into a family of folk musicians at Kaustinen, he found a fiddle being pressed into his hand while he was still a child. On graduating from the Sibelius Academy as a pupil of Onni Suhonen he joined the violas in the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and was well on the way to becoming a first-rate chamher musician. But his heart was in Ostrohothnia. So when the Ostrobothnian Music College in Kokkola announced a vacancy for a violin teacher, Juha Kangas applied and was appointed.

Organic farming

Kangas originally founded the student orchestra to give his pupils experience. Conducting often meant leading his young players by the hand, building up and tenderly nurturing the sound. Kangas himself has sometimes likened his leisurely teaching methods to organic farming. Three years later the results of his work gained national recognition when the “Chamber Orchestra of the Central Ostrobothnian Music College” took part in a young people’s arts event in Lahti.

The word “Music College” was soon dropped in 1979, but ten years were to pass betore the OCO acquired professional status.

Players in their thirties

The average age of the players in the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra is nowadays just over thirty. The oldest of the veterans is past fifty already, the youngest just on 20. Since leader Jari Valo transferred to the Radio Symphony Orchestra in Helsinki, there have not been any of the founding members left. Solo cellist Lauri Pulakka is, however, almost a founding member, having joined the orchestra in 1973, and the present leader, Reijo Tunkkari, is a long-term Ostrobothnian.

The OCO won its first spurs with a repertoire consisting of Baroque music and lyrical Nordic music for strings. Soon it was ready to broaden its gaze in the direction of new music. Of great significance in this respect has been the alliance, since 1973, with Pehr Henrik Nordgren, who lives not far away at Kaustinen. The OCO has premiered almost all Nordgren’s works for string orchestra, and in speaking of them, Nordgren never fails to stress the impor- tance of the OCO and its conductor as an inspiring force behind his music.

The OCC3 has also recorded the complete works for string orchestra by Eino-Juhani Rautavaara. In many respects, in fact, the orchestra stands in a class all of its own as a commissioner and first performer of works: by the end of March 1996 it had clocked up its 70th premiere.

Nordic cooperation

Recordings and concert tours are, in Juha Kangas’ opinion, important in motivating players. The work done in Ostrobothnia for the pleasure of the local people and to enhance the quality of their lives is nevertheless most important of all. A provincial concert at Kalajoki is taken just as seriously as a guest appearance in Tokyo.

By Finnish standards, Kokkola is a medium-sized town on the west coast, 45 km from the folk music parish of Kaustinen, 500 km from Helsinki and 420 km from the Arctic Circle.

Finland is a long country, and since the majority of us look at it from Helsinki on, the south coast and are, what is more, a little short-sighted, it took some shaking from outside before we realised just what a treasure we had in our midst in the Central Ostrobothnian Orchestra. Our western neighbours were much quicker to spot the fact; Juha Kangas soon had a close friendship with the Swedes and their best composers, and one of them, Anders Eliasson, became the orchestra’s second “composer in residence”. In 1993 Juha Kangas and his orchestra were awarded the Nordic Music Prize.

Discoveries in the recent past

In addition to new music, Juha Kangas has been ferreting out forgotten gems from Finland’s recent past. Erkki Salmenhaara’s symphonic poem ‘Le bateau ivre’ is an example of a work that only really came into its own with Juha Kangas and the OCO.

Juha recalls once hearing the work performed at the Jyvaskylä Arts Festival in 1966, and it left him with a very favourable impression. Five years later Salmenhaara himself conducted it at a concert of his works, and it has now been added to the 0CO’s repertoire.

“It’s an important work for Erkki,” says Juha. “He even came all the way up to hear us play it in a concert. Luckily the radio people were there, so there is now a good tape of the Bateau ivre. Despite the good impression I formed of it in Jyväskylä in the 1960s, the performance then did not really do it full justice.”

The Bateau was billed with a work written by Ahti Sonninen in 1945 and a couple of thirties works by Uuno Klami.

“We give a sort of “good finds” concert about once a year. This year we’ve been looking round in the other Nordic countries and have come up with the ‘Concerto for Strings’ composed hy Ingvar Lidholm in his youth, ‘Taromirs tid’ by Karin Renquist (a composer who is hardly known in Finland) and a couple of works written by Per Norgaard in the early 1950s.”

The performing history of Paavo Heininen’s ‘Concerto for String Orchestra’ reflects the rise in standard ot Finland’s orchestra in no uncertain terms. The Helsinki Philharmonic premiered it in 1966, and Heininen told Juha Kangas he felt the performance was not bad at all. But when the OCO played it last year, even the composer himself tound in it things he did not even know existed!

In recognition of his merits as a champion of Finnish music Juha Kangas was last year awarded the prize of the Finnish Composers’ International Copyright Bureau (Teosto).

Baltic connections

Having conquered the Nordic countries, it seemed only natural for Juha Kangas to set his sights on the Baltic republics. He and his orchestra have both performed and recorded a large volume of music by Baltic composers completely unknown in Finland. During the 1995 – 1996 season he has also been Artistic Director of the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra in Estonia.

“We had an Estonian viola player in the OC0 for about a year, who then went on to be one of the founder members of the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. They first invited me over in autumn 1993.”

Conductor and orchestra seemed to get on well with one another. Juha Kangas therefore agreed to take on the artistic directorship ot the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra for a year and found five one-week slots in his diary for it, during which time the OC0 had a guest conductor. He even learned the Estonian language. Some serious spadework has now been put in with the Tallinn orchestra, laying the foundations for its staple repertoire.

The OCO is thus faced with a guest conductor only 5 – 6 times a year. Naturally this is partly a question of money, but on the other hand good chamber orchestra conductors are rather thin on the ground. Juha Kangas is really pleased that Sakari Oramo has been keen to devote a few weeks of his busy year to the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra. “Although we think along the same lines, we are sufficiently different for him to have plenty to give the orchestra.”

Sound graphics

Basically a string orchestra is a chamber ensemble a reinforced string quintet. The conductor can therefore go into far more detail with it than he can with a symphony orchestra. The sound of a string orchestra is more homogeneous than that of a symphony orchestra, but this means it must also have far more nuance. Whereas the symphony orchestra paints, the string orchestra creates a piece of graphic art.

Juha Kangas himself seldom holds guest engagements. To begin with, he is concerned first and foremost with looking after his own orchestra, and sec- ondly, he hates “churning out” concerts in the way most symphony orchestras do. He has, however, agreed to be a regular guest conductor with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, because he is very impressed with the orchestra’s commitment to its work. He used to make fairly regular appearances in Turku, but now he simply does not have time. His foreign tours are mainly limited to Scandinavia and the Baltic republics.

Hand crafted impression

Wherein lies the secret of the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, then? How does it invariably manage to discover the unique essence – the soul – of every piece it performs?

Juha Kangas is only too ready to admit that his orchestra is not out to achieve “as much as possible with as little effort as possible”. Once they get down to work, neither he nor the orchestra so much as glance at the clock in their effort to bring out the inherent quality of each single work and to polish it to perfection. “Every concert should in my opinion be so good that it gives the impression of being hand crafted – a unique work of art, not a duplicated copy.”


From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 2/1996

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Photo: Heikki Tuuli