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Taavi Oramo's multiple roles

by Hanna Isolammi

Conductor, electronic musician, singer, clarinettist and producer Taavi Oramo is known as a highly diverse and open-minded musician. Though increasingly performing as a conductor, he is keen to keep up his multiple other roles too: the various aspects of music-making that he is involved in are mutually supportive.

Taavi Oramo arrives for his interview from a rehearsal of the electroacoustic improvisation group Tölöläb and is on his way to mix an album recorded by Meriheini Luoto, a folk-based avant-garde violinist. Oramo has a finger in several pies, but it is as a conductor that he has recently been attracting international attention.

Oramo made a splash in the Finnish media in the 2017–2018 concert season, as he stepped in for two guest conductors at short notice and received glowing reviews in the press in the Helsinki metropolitan area. Towards the end of 2018, it was announced that Oramo had signed a deal with the distinguished British agency HarrisonParrott. With his career as a conductor firmly in the ascendant, Oramo himself admits that conducting is his no. 1 priority in music at the moment.

This is not to say that there is no room for manoeuvring, and indeed Oramo is keen to keep up his multiple interests. Still, he has had to make certain choices with the increase in his conducting engagements, and as a result he rarely performs as a clarinettist any more. Maintaining instrument skills at a professional level requires regular and continuous practice, and he just does not have the time for it at this juncture. He does still perform as a singer, and Tölöläb is going strong. He is also taking up new duties in the near future, as Artist in Association with the Tapiola Sinfonietta in 2019–2020 and as artistic director of the VocalEspoo festival in 2020.


Important lessons

Rapidly shifting from one role to another is taxing, but some roles are mutually supportive. “For instance, the Meriheini Luoto recording project has taught me about the art of critical listening and about well-lead but community-driven creative processes. These are important lessons in a conductor’s job,” says Oramo. Being involved in event production has reinforced his ability to endure stress – another essential quality for a conductor.

Oramo points out that there is nothing new about musicians having an interest in multiple genres. What is new is a shift in attitudes to genres of music and how they are valued. “The difference is perhaps that today all music – not just the music emerging from the tradition of Western art music – is considered on the same value scale.”

The shifting attitudes to musical genres and their boundaries have also changed how and to whom concerts are marketed. Oramo has had to think about the audiences of art music on the one hand and of experimental music on the other particularly in producing the multidisciplinary chamber music events of the Eloa Culture Company.

“There are plenty of interested listeners out there, but the problem is in how to package a concert so that the people who might be interested will be interested,” he explains. “Generally speaking, young people don’t seem to respond to the sort of personality marketing that is established practice for classical music concerts today. But the alternative – how to hard-sell the content – is a tough nut to crack.”

A graduate of the generalist school

Oramo is a deliberately omnivorous conductor. “As a conductor and as a listener, the music I like most of all is any music that somehow touches brain, heart and guts at the same time.” His broad tastes and quick learning skills are at least in part a product of the Finnish tradition of conductor training. “The ‘Finnish school’ is rather generalist: its goal is a universal technique with which you can cope with many different kinds of music. Also, the pace is fast: we basically learn a new piece every week, and that’s partly what established my routine,” he says.

Also, Finnish orchestras tend to favour conductors who conduct diverse kinds of music, because “contemporary music and traditional score-based music enjoy a harmonious co-existence in [Finnish] concert programmes,” as Oramo says.

But within this omnivorous appetite, Oramo says that modern or contemporary music in the continuum of Finnish art music, such as Magnus Lindberg, feels very natural and agreeable for him to conduct – perhaps because he heard such a lot of it in his early adolescence. Both his parents are musicians with international careers: soprano Anu Komsi and conductor Sakari Oramo. Taavi Oramo has certainly had a plethora of musical influences, but one of the main benefits of his family background that he brings up is gaining a realistic understanding of a musician’s life:

“One of the most important things I learned at home is what a musician’s career is really like and what it demands – what the challenges are that musicians have to cope with throughout their working life.” One of his most important musical experiences was playing together with his grandmother, pianist Liisa Pohjola: “That was a hugely important experience for a chamber musician,” he says.

A healthy mix of improvised and notated music

Today, Taavi Oramo’s chamber music interests are primarily channelled through the Tölöläb ensemble, a group of woodwind players with live electronics whose performances are based on free improvisation. The wind players are Turkka Inkilä (flute), Saku Mattila (oboe) and Antti Salovaara (bassoon). Oramo handles the live electronics. Improvised music is particularly interesting for him, and he wishes more musicians would delve into it. “Improvised music is its own thing. It’s very different from notated music, also in the listener’s perception.”

Oramo’s interest in live electronics came from a course given by violinist Todd Reynolds at the Manhattan School of Music. “I became fascinated with the idea of combining live electronics and free improvisation. Completely unrestricted improvisation is physically taxing, because you have to keep up the energy all the time. Live electronics is a fruitful companion because it sustains the action.

The amount of advance planning that goes into a Tölöläb improvisation gig varies hugely. Typically, the ensemble agrees in advance on the technical equipment to be used, but there is no pre-existing musical material or MIDI data. “Sometimes we think about durations, but generally the mood and everything else is generated naturally by the ambience of the gig. On the other hand, there have been gigs that we’ve planned very carefully and rehearsed for. I find it very fruitful to combine improvised and notated music in a concert programme. There’s something intuitively appealing about that combination.”

The ensemble has performed with the Elifantree jazz trio and rap artist Paleface, creating arrangements of folk songs and songs from the Finnish Civil War with Paleface. They have also given multiple performances of a production combining Baroque instruments and voice with live electronics and improvisation with harpsichord player Matias Häkkinen and soprano Tuuli Lindeberg. New cross-genre activities are in store for autumn 2019.

Taavi Oramo

  • b. 1990
  • studied conducting under Jorma Panula at the Panula Academy and under professors Atso Almila and Hannu Lintu at the Sibelius Academy
  • operates live electronics in the electroacoustic improvisation group Tölöläb
  • focuses as a singer on contemporary and early music, and has appeared as tenor soloist with the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra, the Finnish Baroque Orchestra and Sinfonia Lahti, etc.
  • has appeared as clarinet soloist with orchestras in Kuopio, Joensuu and Lappeenranta, and with the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra and the contemporary music group New Times Ensemble 
  • is a founding member, former executive director and Chairman of the Board of the Eloa Culture Company, which produces multidisciplinary chamber music events

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photos: Tero Ahonen