For three short years at the start of the 1990s, a Helsinki symphony orchestra employed a chief conductor from outside Finland. But when Sergiu Comissiona left the Helsinki Philharmonic in 1993, music life in the capital reverted to business as usual.
Across the combined 233-year lifespan of the Helsinki Philharmonic and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Comissiona’s three-tenure remains the only instance of either ensemble being led by a non-Finn. That will change this August, as the British conductor Nicholas Collon becomes the first foreign Chief Conductor of the FRSO.
The recent history of the FRSO is one of positive change. Sakari Oramo ushered the orchestra into the superior acoustic of the Helsinki Music Centre in 2011. Two years later Hannu Lintu took the reigns, presiding over another period of technical development and generational transformation.
In its current vintage, the FRSO has more international musicians than ever. Arguably, it has never been more technically capable, institutionally disciplined or musically imposing. Nor has it been so widely listened-to. These days the orchestra exports first-class recordings of Lutosławski and Zimmermann to the world as often as it does Saariaho and Sibelius.
When Collon first visited the ensemble in 2017, Lintu was already considering a move down Töölö Bay to the Finnish National Opera. The British conductor was booked to take the orchestra through what trumpet player and chairman of the FRSO orchestra committee Miikka Saarinen refers to as “a really, really difficult programme conducted in a really, really interesting way.” At its centerpiece was Thomas Adès’s fiendishly difficult piano concerto In Seven Days.
A number of players made their way to General Manager Tuula Sarotie’s office to register their enthusiasm. “We saw a potential companion in Nicholas – a partner – someone who could take us in the very direction we wanted to go in,” says Saarinen. Was there any discussion of nationality? “Yes, because this orchestra is duty bound to promote Finnish music. But this time it somehow felt natural to go with our musical feelings. And music doesn’t feel nationalities.”
Photo: Anton Sucksdorff
Tuula Sarotie has been General Manager of the Finnish broadcasting corporation Yle’s symphony orchestra since 2001. “It would be narrow-minded just to think about nationality when choosing a new chief conductor,” says Sarotie. But tradition dictates that Finnish conductors on their way up (and there remain plenty of those) are offered the reins of one of the nation’s prestige orchestras in Helsinki, Tampere or Lahti. Is this a break with that tradition? “It’s simply time for a change,” says Sarotie. “We have fantastic musicians in the orchestra from all over the world: from the Far East, from America and from elsewhere in Europe. It’s time to open new doors.”
Despite his traditional approach to the profession via Eton College and Cambridge University, Collon’s status as a disruptor is firmly established. In the UK, he is best known for starting chamber orchestra Aurora in 2005, whose inventive programming and idiosyncratic performance practices have made it hot property.
Aurora’s refreshing approach to music might see it programme Paul Simon alongside Aaron Copland; play music standing up and without scores; or realign a concert’s rubric to give it the atmosphere of a happening, a cabaret or just an informal meeting. The orchestra is still going strong. But what was once a challenge to orthodoxies now looks more and more like a part of the establishment. On 11 August it makes its annual appearance at the BBC Proms playing Stravinsky’s The Firebird under Collon – albeit without scores.
Aurora was a much-needed shot in the arm for a stagnating London music life the decade after the millennium. Collon arrives at a FRSO that, in contrast, is flying high.
Before the virus hit, the orchestra was filling 99% of seats at its Helsinki Music Centre concerts and reaching a growing audience through its television broadcasts. When something like normality returns – hopefully this autumn – the experiences of the pandemic will be put to good use. Yle will televise every one of the FRSO’s concerts, ensuring nobody in Finland need miss a beat.
Last time Collon took on a chief conductorship at an established symphony orchestra it was to rescue an orchestra in crisis – he became the boss at Het Residentie Orkest in The Hague in 2018 and departed this summer. Is arriving at a thriving orchestra a more challenging proposition?
“That’s a very English attitude isn’t it – trying to find a problem with a luxury situation?” he laughs. “Look, I think it will be quite hard to sustain the level of what they’re [FRSO] doing. I would never assume that audiences will turn up in five years. We need to make every concert thrilling and entertaining and moving. This orchestra has done exceptionally well at that under Hannu but there is more we can do. There are more voices we need to hear and there are ways of playing that the orchestra hasn’t delved into.”
Could that mean playing from memory – standing up – Aurora-style? “Probably not, but you never know. Some sense of innovation is already built into this orchestra’s DNA. Look at the Scenes from Goethe’s Faust they did with Hannu [at the Cable Factory, with integrated film and stage direction by Jussi Nikkilä]. I’ve been at orchestras where I have asked the musicians to play standing up and it has led to 7 or 8 player meetings and union negotiations. I suggested it to the FRSO management and the response came back immediately: ‘yes, fine’. That sort of attitude is so important in an ingrained, closed society like classical music.”
Collon is energized by the FRSO’s interest in period instruments. The ensemble used natural horns and trumpets for his recent performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony from the Rock Church in Helsinki and has its own in-house viol consort (“very much my world,” the conductor says).
He relishes the opportunity to expand the orchestra’s repertoire all directions, mentioning Rameau and Bacewicz in the same sentence. He will also conduct plenty of British music in Helsinki including symphonies by Elgar and Walton. “This orchestra’s capacity for drawing in an audience who is not afraid of any kind of music is extraordinary and quite unique,” Collon says.
His immediate priority, he states, is “to fit in, keep standards high, try to find my feet and then, over the coming seasons, to be able to experiment a bit more.” But experimentation won’t necessarily involve re-engineering the orchestra’s sound, he promises. “I will bring music to them that I am sure will be new and I will make that music sound how I want it to sound.”
Englishmen in Helsinki
Collon’s first big gesture in Helsinki will be a festival of music by the British composer-conductor Thomas Adès. The man himself will be in attendance, and will also conduct the orchestra. There is some neat symbolism there, given Adès’s music was on the menu when Collon first visited the orchestra in 2017.
Sarotie cites Collon’s efficiency and effectiveness in rehearsal. “His way of working with the orchestra is different from any of our former chief conductors. With Nick it is give and take. He gives and he gets from the orchestra. If you want to put it briefly, it’s about listening to each other and respecting each other’s voice.”
What about the reputation of British conductors, in the Nordic countries, for talking too much? “When Nick does talk it’s either really interesting or it’s very funny,” says Sarotie. “We do think of British conductors as being good with small talk and humour. But now I have known Nick some time, I have noticed that he is extremely determined. When he really wants something, he won’t give up. I like that.”
That’s made easier, admits Collon, by his outsider status. “Working at home, English conductors are defined by their Englishness,” he says. “When I go abroad I am free to be what I want to be. That is very un-constraining and actually quite wonderful. I didn’t know a single person in this orchestra before I first conducted it, whereas many of my predecessors came from within it. That can bring difficulties, as I know from Aurora.”
Some might claim Collon’s appointment looks less than ideal considering the FRSO’s responsibility to Finland’s contemporary music culture – and its hundreds of professional composers. “Nick knows exactly what we expect of him in that regard,” says Sarotie. Each of Collon’s seasons will spotlight a Finnish composer while the conductor’s enthusiasm for Kalevi Aho is a matter of record (he will also conduct music by Jouni Kaipainen his first season).
The British conductor will open his Finnish music account with Lotta Wennäkoski – his first season’s “spotlight” composer, and Jean Sibelius (both, like Adès, slated for recording projects). He is undaunted by the prospect of serious criticism from inside Finland. “No offence, but I don’t really care. It’s going to be a long time before I can read a review in Finnish anyway. In the meantime I am going to do what I want to do and I don’t have to understand what people say or think of me.”
Collon will capitalize on this outsider status as he pushes for wider recognition of the ensemble and irrigates its international connections. “Many people, in Finland and outside it, still see this orchestra rather as a local venture. But it should be celebrated as a really top European orchestra with some truly outstanding and soloistic players. It’s part of my job to use my external perspective to try to drive that through.”
The Radio Orchestra
A central resource in that regard will be the FRSO’s wealth of filmed concert material. “We will be trying to drive traffic to that, whether via Yle Areena (the broadcaster’s catch-up service, free throughout Europe) or other means,” says Collon.
The introduction of the blanket media tax to replace the old license fee has strengthened Yle’s public service mission, while the realization that the corporation exists for every taxpayer partly lies behind the increase in its orchestra’s TV and streamed appearances.
Despite that, questions remain as to just what relevance the “radio orchestra” has to European citizens in an age when any orchestra can broadcast on its own terms – or be invited to, as the Helsinki Philharmonic was during the pandemic, on state networks.
“Yes, there are issues with the concept of radio orchestra but it depends on where you are and what you’re looking at,” Collon argues. “What you get out of the FRSO as a taxpayer is wonderful. Every single concert is broadcast on Yle’s main channel every week, and tens of thousands of people watch it. To me that is an absolute justification of a broadcasting orchestra and an example of how it should be done. Not every radio orchestra or broadcasting company achieves that.”
Conversation turns to the equally anachronistic idea of studio broadcasting and record-label recordings – both problematic in an age of surplus content. “I love the concept of recording,” Collon says; “I really cherish the beauty of it artistically and musically – when an orchestra is really in the zone. I suppose I sit on the fence of how many more Mahler 5s we need on disc. What this orchestra tends to record is repertoire that has not been pushed enough.”
Is he conscious of balancing the needs of the local, live audience with those of the nation’s radio listeners and television viewers? “I don’t think we exist to answer a need. I think we exist to create art and promote that art, right? I mean, people tune in to so there is obviously a hunger for it.”
At Home in the North
Collon admits to a certain fear of the Finnish winter. “I sometimes wish I could confine all my work to May. But I’ll deal with it.” As for working culture, he sees a clear difference. “I am loathed to get into stereotypes, but they clearly exist. A Finnish orchestra is miles apart from a German orchestra and a Spanish orchestra, let alone an American orchestra.”
And, certainly, a London orchestra. Are the Nordic region’s expectations of stability and work-life balance less conducive to high-octane music making than the knife-edge atmosphere of a freelance UK ensemble? “A comfortable working environment is simply beneficial – when you don’t need to play a film music session or teach for five hours after a rehearsal. In Helsinki I see an orchestra that turns up at 10 knowing that at 3 they’ll be able to go collect their kids, unlike necessarily in London. They [FRSO players] give everything of themselves in that time while demonstrating pride in what they do.”
The Covid restrictions have been lifted for concerts in Helsinki, and the FRSO & Nicholas Collon return to live concerts on Friday 18 February. Listen live at 7pm EET at Yle Areena.
Featured photo: Chris Christodolou