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Markus Maskuniitty nurtures the Finnish horn tradition - from Berlin

by Anu Karlson

Brass music has its own centres in finland, though they manage to be about as far from each other in east-west terms as the country s geography will allow. The small northern Karelian town of Lieksa has for the past 18 summers hosted an annual music festival where the brasses are in the spotlight, while turku in Finland's south-western corner boasts the country s best brass instrument shop, and Turku's french horn players have also got together to found our very first natural horn ensemble. All the same, when you ask a Finnish wind player where he started his training, the answer is nearly always: 'in the Rauma boys band'.
Rauma is another small town on the west coast, about 100 kilometres north of Turku. The Rauma Boys’ Band – and don’t let the name fool you, for there are girls in there, too – produces the future flautists, trombonists, clarinettists and tuba-players (and of course the French horns) that will populate Finland’s orchestras. Markus Maskuniitty remembers his first steps with his chosen instrument:

“When I joined the band, I didn’t really know any other wind instruments apart from the flute and the trumpet. Girls played the flute, and boys the trumpet; this rather narrowed down my choice. But other instruments are needed besides these two, and when the band’s conductor Pentti Jalonen spotted that I was left-handed, he figured that the French horn might suit me nicely”.

As if to confirm this hunch, the 9-year- old Markus put his lips to the mouthpiece, blew, and made a sound immediately. This was an excellent sign, as anyone who has tried will testify.

Markus also took his first real teacher from the Rauma Boys’ Band. She was Erja Joukamo-Ampuja, now a member of the horns in the Radio Symphony Orchestra, who had just left the band when Markus arrived. Then at a summer music camp Markus met Antero Kasper, one of Holger Fransman’s pupils and colleagues in the Helsinki Philharmonic, and he began to take private lessons with Kasper in Helsinki.

“This was one very absent-minded young man”, recalls Antero Kasper as we soak up some summer sun on the deck of a lake steamer on the way from Lieksa to Koli. “Sometimes the notes would be left behind at home, other times it was the horn itself”.

“Nothing’s changed”, counters Markus with a grin. “Students today are just as bad – they’ve always left their notes somewhere else”.

M.Sc. or horn-player?

At 16, Markus was accepted by the Turku Conservatory and only then began to receive tuition on a regular basis, under Olavi Vikman. After he graduated from high school Markus met Timo Ronkainen, leader of the horns with the Helsinki Philharmonic, at another music camp in Savonlinna, and he became Timo Ronkainen’s pupil, first at the Helsinki Conservatory and then at the Sibelius Academy when Ronkainen joined the staff there.

Even at that stage, Markus almost certainly had no idea of what he was going to be when he grew up. He also enrolled at the University of Technology, studying electrical engineering. He soon discovered that it was not quite his thing. He enjoyed working as a musician a great deal more, especially when invitations to perform began to come in at an increasing pace. He took off for Berlin to spend six months studying under the careful eye of Radovan Vlatkovich.

“Radovan was there for a couple of weeks out of each month, and the rest of the time I could concentrate solely on practising. It was a really good time”.

Before this, Markus had managed to secure his first orchestra chair with the newly-founded Tapiola Sinfonietta, and to spend a year with them. On his return from Berlin he accepted an invitation to join the Radio Symphony Orchestra as section leader.

Yours sincerely, Claudio Abbado

The next thing that happened was that a solo horn seat opened up with the Berlin Philharmonic. Markus had had experience of this position with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, and Claudio Abbado, who conducted both orchestras, remembered his face. So Markus received an invitation to an audition directly from Abbado, along with Tommi Viertonen from the Helsinki Philharmonic and his colleague Esa Tapani from the RSO.

Holger Fransman, the undisputed “god- father of Finnish horn-playing”, was still alive at that time, and he got to hear of the attention being paid to “his boys”.

“Frani said that even if we didn’t take up the challenge and go and try our luck, just having an invitation signed by Abbado was achievement enough, and worth sticking up on the wall in a frame!”

Although Markus was quite happy with his job at the RSO, and in no way desperate to move abroad, he couldn’t resist the temptation to go and bench-test himself in the world’s toughest company. So he went to Berlin, and he played well: he was placed second in the audition.

The top spot went to Stefan Dohr, solo horn with the Berlin Radio Symphony. This meant that if and when Dohr switched orchestras, his seat in the Radio Symphony would become vacant. And so Dohr immediately asked Markus if he’d be interested in the solo horn position with Berlin’s No.2 orchestra. “Just go round there and play a bit for them”. Well, why not, thought Markus, and he went and played a little Strauss and Mozart for the committee members, and lo and behold, he became a Berlin musician. His three and a half year stint with the Berlin Radio Symphony gave way from September this year to an engagement as principal horn with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Sauna and symphony It is no longer by any means self-evident that a Finnish musician would put a position abroad before an engagement with an orchestra at home. But an orchestral musician – even if his status here has improved greatly and the standard of Finnish orchestras has rocketed upwards – is still “king of the hill” in Central Europe in quite a different fashion from his Finnish colleagues.

“The birthplace of orchestral culture is in Germany, and a sizeable majority of the most important composers come from the Germanic language area. Down there, symphonic music is to them as sauna is to us”, is Markus Maskuniitty’s definition of it.

The Berlin Philharmonic has eight French horns, which means a double manning for most compositions, and as a rule they take it in turns to play, although the full complement might be called out for large works. The Berlin Philharmonic spends around two and a half months of each year on the road, and then all the musicians go on tour with the orchestra.

If the pace of working was slightly more leisurely with the Berlin Radio Symphony than it had been with the Finnish RSO, in the Berlin Philharmonic it is every bit as tough as in Finland. There are two three-hour rehearsal sessions every day, and concerts three evenings a week.

Finland, land of a thousand horns?

Having now seen a good bit of the world, Markus Maskuniitty is not about to go claiming that Finnish horn-playing culture is unique. There are good musicians to be found everywhere. But he does feel that there are features in Finnish musical life that others might learn from.

“Up here a young musician gets the freedom to develop his or her musicality, and not to have a hysterical fear of making mistakes. The musician doesn’t get handcuffed immediately with the demands of the ‘perfect’ performance. On the continent, further south, the competition is very stiff, and orchestras don’t like to take risks. So an orchestra will choose – at least if we are talking about tutti musicians – the player with the most polished technique. Here we are more willing occasionally to take on someone who is not technically totally ‘ready’, but shows promise”.

And Markus then allows a brief flash of patriotic bias: “In Central Europe the standard of horn playing is broad – there’s a lot of solid musicians out there – and to a certain point it also goes pretty high. But if you go really far into the musical nuances and finesses, then it may just be that Finland has more good players per capita than even Germany can claim, simply through this difference in the training”, argues Markus.

Smoothing the differences, preserving the ideals Horn-playing in Finland was put on the map internationally by Holger Fransman, who died last January and whose legacy is preserved carefully by at least four generations of pupils and the pupils of pupils. In the 1930s Fransman was the first Finn to go abroad to study his instrument at the feet of the real international greats. His first teacher was Karl Stiegler, principal horn with the Vienna Philharmonic.

“There’s no doubt that the Viennese ideals that Frani brought back with him are still maintained here, for instance the fact that we play a good deal on the horn in F, whereas elsewhere in Europe they primarily use the B flat horn, a fourth higher. We go more for that dark, rounded sound and pay particular attention to the roundedness and softness of legato technique”.

In other respects Markus Maskuniitty observes that the old national differences have begun to be harder to spot in horn-playing. These days you hardly ever hear the very big, dark American sound or the paler, more open French tone.

“My own ideal? Maybe it would be something in the style of the forest horn, coming across slightly muffled, with a bit of mystery in there as though it was the echo of the woods. With a little more depth to it than for example in the direct sound, which has more of a trombone feel to it”.

Using the modern “double horn” in F/Bflat, it is not possible completely to achieve this ideal. Then again, different purposes call for different sounds. Markus Maskuniitty emphasises that a horn-player must be able to adjust his sound to suit the music, and to find and accommodate new shades.

Not exactly a “well-known” instrument…

At least in Markus Maskuniitty’s own experience, conductors seldom care to present special demands for their horns. Usually they don’t know quite how much you can do with a horn – although the exception to the rule might be found close at hand in Esa-Pekka Salonen, who started out himself as a horn-player (and was another Fransman pupil). The lack of guidance adds to the responsibility that the horn section has for what it does.

“The horns have a very important role in the orchestra; they make a very sonorous package, and very often come out specifically as a group. We have part rehearsals all the time as the need arises; it’s a matter of honour that important passages should get played right every time”.

Markus Maskuniitty sighs when the subject of modern composers comes up; he feels they use the instrument in a very one-sided fashion.

“All too often the French horn gets percussive text in a big-band style; it’s difficult to play, but difficult in the wrong way, and in the wrong register. The basic features of the horn – the lyrical quality, the romantic sound, the legato lines – don’t get a chance to be brought out in the way they deserve”.

In this case, too, things are helped somewhat if the composer is a brass player, like Jarmo Sermilä, who had a concert of his music at the 1997 festival in Lieksa.

Tradition and conservatism

Markus Maskuniitty holds out more hope for the future of music from Finland’s relatively “young” musical life than from the tradition-cherishing centres further south.

“Finland still has a lot left of that child-like sense of adventure and experiment as far as music goes. We still play because it’s fun; we’ll play a lot of new music and try out new ideas. In Germany things are much more conservative that way”.

Markus is alarmed at the way that musical life in Germany is taking on a museum-like aspect: the average age of audiences is high and concert programmes are becoming stale. It seems to him as though people attend concerts more because it is the done thing than out of any search for musical experiences.

“But this is just another challenge for us musicians. We have to be very open-minded about what we do and to think seriously how we are going to get the younger audiences moving”.

From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 1/1998

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