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Sakari Oramo: Not daunted by the shadow of Simon Rattle

by Harri Kuusisaari

Sakari Oramo is Finland’s blue-eyed boy at the moment, having recently been appointed Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The appointment is not, however, just a boost to the ego but the just reward of true and selfless musicianship.Three cheers for another Finn who’s made a name for himself in the world!

“Isn’t it strange how you always have to make a name for yourself abroad before you get any recognition in Finland. I remember Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Esa-Pekka Salonen complaining before their great breakthrough how difficult it was to get an invitation to conduct the orchestras in Vaasa or Kuopio.”

Oramo himself faces the challenge with his feet firmly on the ground. “I’ve learnt 20 per cent of what I know about conducting by playing with the rank and file, seeing how the maestros do it, and 10 per cent from studying in Jorma Panula’s class at the Sibelius Academy. And the remaining 70 per cent remains to be learnt. I’m not going to rush to expand my repertoire.”

While universally acclaimed as a musician through and through, it has been said that Oramo nevertheless lacks that special touch of charisma. The young maestro himself is not bothered about this: “You can’t inspire authority artificially. It comes via the music, by making your view of a work as logical and credible as possible.”

Pleasing to the eye and ear

Sakari Oramo is one of the founding members of the Avanti! chamber orchestra and grew up in the atmosphere of the 80s bursting with idealism. He “retired” from Avanti! on being appointed leader of the RSO.

He never had any burning passion to become a conductor. “I was quite happy with life as a violinist, but I gradually developed a desire to be more fully involved in the music. Once I started studying conducting, things just seemed to happen of their own accord.”

“Pleasing to the eye, frightful to the ear,” was the comment made by Seppo Heikinheimo, critic on the leading Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat, on Oramo’s debut as a conductor in his diploma concert. “I must say I more or less felt ‘so that’s that’,” Oramo admits.

Only a few weeks later he had a chance to make a real breakthrough, however, when the RSO sent an SOS to its leader saying that the conductor, Heinz Wallberg, had been taken ill and would he please come and conduct the Brahms One. The performance became a legend. “The musicians’ support was quite unbelievable. I’ve hardly dared touch Brahms since then.” The experience was an encouraging one, because the performance meant a dream come true: everything went well, but in a way that was unexpected and creative.

“Ideally, you begin at zero in a performance and then proceed to create something unique in precisely that space and for that audience. Nothing you’ve agreed in rehearsal matters at the concert. Otherwise it would simply be like checking to see that the musicians had all learnt their lessons.

“I have a great admiration for unscrupulous personality when it’s combined with a professionalism like that of Leonard Bernstein, say. I have to admit that in this respect we’re all too well brought up.”

Not daunted by Rattle’s shadow

The CBSO and Sakari Oramo first made one another’s acquaintance in early spring 1995 and found themselves mutually compatible. There’s a story going round about the first rehearsal that the horns tried to catch the newcomer out by playing notes which, while sounding OK, were not the right ones. Oramo did not fall for the ruse, however, at which the leader whispered, “They’re just testing you.”

Oramo’s three-year contract with the CBSO begins in autumn 1998 and requires him to conduct at least 30 concerts a season. His future orchestra is not only highly proficient, says Oramo: it also has the right attitude. “They turn up for rehearsals without any suggestion that they’re good and famous. They’re incredibly obedient and they openly want to learn. They’re anything but stuck up and there’s a tremendous intensity about the way they work.”

The task ahead does not intimidate Oramo. “If I want to reserve a couple of weeks to rehearse a symphony, I reckon I’ll get them. The CBSO is a regional institution, which guarantees a moderate pace of work. Many of the players have opted for Birmingham in preference to the killing pace of the London orchestras.”

One interesting question is how a young artist like Oramo can succeed in taking over from a giant like Sir Simon Rattle. This has been the subject of some scepticism, especially in the British press, since the appointment was announced. “Of course there will be disadvantages of working in the shadow of Rattle, but what can I do about it? I can only do my best. The players presumably believe they can start afresh with me, otherwise they would not have chosen me unanimously.”

This is precisely what Sir Simon himself says. “The orchestra took a far bigger risk when they chose me than they did when they chose Sakari. We’ve got lots of similar views on music, and I’m glad the orchestra will be left in good hands,” he said in an interview for EMI.

The situation is quite exciting for Oramo, because he sees himself as a guinea-pig in the broader sense. “In his day Rattle was a trail-blazer in committing himself to a single orchestra when he was still only a young man and sticking with it for a long time. He scotched any ideas that a conductor always has to be on the go. His policy has since been taken up by Salonen, Jansons, Saraste, Vänskä and others. But what happens when the time comes to move on? Well, in a way I’m setting a precedent.”

Violin still plucks at his heartstrings

Not until 1996 did Oramo finally relinquish his seat as leader of the Finnish RSO. He had loved the job and was loath to burn his boats. Playing the violin meant a lot to him, though he could not seem to get launched on a solo career.

He nevertheless admits with a sigh that the standard of playing in Finland has risen all the time, so the new generation is always better than the one before. “The rate we’re going on, I doubt I’d even get a job among the rank and file nowadays.

“It’s a tremendous help if the conductor knows the problems encountered by the various instruments. On the other hand, there’s a danger here of becoming too lenient over mannerisms. The demands of the music must always come before ‘this is how we always play it’.”

The biggest gap in Oramo’s repertoire is opera, which he has never conducted apart from one or two experiments. “So far I’ve left the opera side to my wife,” he laughs. His wife, Anu Komsi, has a contract with the opera in Bremen, which is also where the family lives. They will, however, be moving this year, to somewhere in the Birmingham region.

Magic of the old maestros

Asked to name the people who have influenced him most, Sakari Oramo naturally mentions the Finnish conductors under whom he has played. “Jukka-Pekka Saraste has left such a strong mark on the RSO that it would be a miracle if I wasn’t influenced by him. And Paavo Berglund has been a father figure in many respects.”

In speaking of Jorma Panula’s class, he particularly values the practical approach and the individual teaching. The use of videos and other teaching aids has given Oramo’s conducting a clarity and plasticity. “There is of course a danger here of paying too much attention to the external elements – call it the choreography – whereas the musical ideas are what really count.”

The old legendary conductors such as Furtwängler, Toscanini and Klemperer have just recently begun to fascinate Oramo more and more. Of the contemporary maestros he particularly mentions Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

“I can see a clear link between Harnoncourt and Toscanini and Furtwängler. In conducting Beethoven, for example, they don’t try to round off the edges and the accents. Harnoncourt gives a different interpretation each time, with lots of imagination and improvisation. That’s why he interests me more than Gardiner or Norrington. The thing I really find strange is Karajan’s way of tying everything up in standard package.”

Sectional interaction

The orchestra is like a child, says Oramo, that needs encouraging and controlling simultaneously.

“Every orchestra has a character of its own, but the national differences have in recent years got smaller and smaller. The time has gone when orchestras set out to create a recognisable ‘Philadelphia’ sound. All they want nowadays is to create the sounds characteristic of their composers.

While conducting the Berlin Radio Orchestra, Oramo found that German musicians expect far more detailed instructions and discipline than Finnish ones.

“Chamber music is the foundation of good orchestral playing. The Finnish orchestras go in for more sectional interaction than, say, the British ones, where each one simply tends its own plot. Their whole training there is designed to produce a good sound, so while the sound is certainly homogeneous, it is not necessarily very distinct.

“I want my orchestra to engage in a constant makeover game in which the sections try to imitate one another, given the right situation. Paavo Berglund once made this very clear: he ordered that when the strings are playing with the wind, they should use less vibrato and aim at a more windy sound. This is one idea I want to launch in Birmingham.”

One gesture says more than a hundred words

How can the conductor influence the sound of the orchestra in an actual concert? Sakari Oramo has found it all depends on surprising little things like the way the conductor stands and the way he varies his beat.

“The musician always has half an eye on the conductor. The more variety (so long as it is justified by the score) there is in the beat, the richer in nuance the playing becomes. It’s important to look ahead, to indicate what you want in advance. In your mind you must always be a couple of seconds ahead of the events.”

Oramo does not have any particular rehearsing methods. “There’s no point in trying to be too clever by half; but if you want something, then get it. I try to hold sectionals whenever possible. They’re especially necessary in Helsinki because the players simply cannot hear one another in the awful acoustics of the Finlandia hall.”

On the whole Oramo tries to avoid words at rehearsals, but this is not always possible. “They may be necessary to weed out a mannerism, for example. But I go on the principle that one good gesture says more than ten minutes of explanation.”

Oramo never uses an instrument in studying the score. “The music gets etched on my eyeballs so that I can work on it wherever I am, even while shopping or on a plane. I then refer to the score again to check on details. But I can’t really say that I have a photographic memory. There’s no point giving yourself a headache by trying to conduct an unfamiliar work from memory.”

Recording irritating

How far Oramo’s contract with Birmingham will affect his recording agreements is not yet certain. It is unlikely that EMI, the CBSO and Rattle label, will take the young maestro under its wing immediately. And even fewer expect the CBSO to start recording for Ondine, Oramo’s present stable.

“I really couldn’t care less because records have begun to irritate me. The recording industry is allowed to dictate far too much these days,” says Oramo, but a moment later admits he is extremely proud of the recording of Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments he has just made with his wife Anu Komsi. “I tell you, the record was made out of an artistic compulsion.”

Ondine already has a record of Oramo and the RSO playing tone poems by Ernst Pingoud in the pipeline. Oramo has developed a liking for this composer and intends to record more of his music. “He has a very toothsome orchestral sound, slightly entertaining but highly original. I can’t think of any other composer quite like him,” Oramo enthuses.


Featured photo: Benjamin Ealovega


From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 1/1997

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