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“This is what I’ve been preparing for all my life” – conductor Tarmo Peltokoski

by Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen

Tarmo Peltokoski made his international breakthrough at the age of 20. Now, two years later, he is making first appearances with orchestras near and far, and he has already been engaged on a regular basis by three European orchestras. He is a high flyer but with a cool head. “I’ve never questioned wanting to become a conductor,” says Peltokoski, whose aim is to specialise in opera.

Tarmo Peltokoski sits down for a casual interview at the Music Centre in Helsinki on what will be his last free day for a long time. The year 2022 was a wild ride for the 22-year-old conductor, and this year promises to be no different.

In early 2022, he was first appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and then Artistic Director of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Last summer, he appeared as a conductor at distinguished music festivals in central Europe, including the Beethoven Festival in Bonn and the Schleswig-Holstein Festival, In August, he conducted Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at Eurajoki in Finland in a full production of the Ring, a stupendous effort by the Bel Canto Festival.

“Eurajoki is now Finland’s Bayreuth,” Peltokoski ventures, cracking a smile. Wagner fever in the Satakunta region is only just getting started, and Tristan und Isolde is next in line to be conducted by Peltokoski at Gustav Adolf Church at Eurajoki. In April, the production will be performed at St John’s Church in Helsinki.

The fact that Peltokoski has just conducted his first Ring cycle, in his twenties, is only one of the many astonishing items in his CV to date. Only a couple of years ago, in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown in 2020, he was in a very different situation. Even then, though, he could justifiably be described as a sensation: a merited pianist who had begun his conducting studies with Jorma Panula at the age of 15, he made his conducting début with the Helsinki Philharmonic in autumn 2020. Only a short while later, in November 2020, he entered the international stage, and now he is rapidly creating a dazzling career in Europe – after the musical world has barely got over the shock of the rapid rise of Klaus Mäkelä (b. 1996), another product of Finland’s excellence in conductor training.


Bremen orchestra became family

The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is a highly rated touring orchestra whose Artistic Director is Paavo Järvi. The orchestra wanted something to do during coronavirus lockdowns in Germany, and having previously worked with Finnish musicians such as Iiro Rantala and Pekka Kuusisto, they invited Tarmo Peltokoski to give a workshop.

“They invited me at a few days’ notice to conduct Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony,” says Peltokoski. Sibelius’s Fourth is an introvert work that has a reputation for being extremely challenging to come to grips with. “It was an unnatural concept. They flew me over to conduct this piece for no particular reason. It seems that they just wanted to do something really strange.”

The first encounter proved completely different from what Peltokoski was expecting. The orchestra did not know how to play Sibelius’s Fourth, but no one minded.

“I spent two days there, and we liked each other a lot. Really a lot.” 

Peltokoski now describes the Bremen orchestra as his family. He excitedly talks about the orchestra’s exceptionally democratic processes, its work ethic and of course its brilliance in performing Viennese Classical repertoire. And as we may deduce from the fact that it was the musicians themselves who requested Sibelius’s Fourth, they are not afraid to venture out of their comfort zone.

"A conductor can easily remain a distant figure, not a human being but a manifestation of his career bubble. Even the best orchestras in the world scarcely know what their conductors are like as human beings."

During the workshop, Peltokoski and the Kammerphilharmonie took a break from Sibelius and played the Magic Flute overture, so as to try something that the orchestra knew well.

“After that, we were crazy about each other. My first concerts with them were the most powerful musical experiences of my life so far.”

After that début, the orchestra voted to invite Peltokoski back as Principal Guest Conductor – the first ever such appointment to be made by them. Peltokoski made his public début with the orchestra in June 2021, and now he feels like he has known them for ages.

“I know them, because there are only 40+ members and because they’re people that I can get to know. The strangest thing is that they also know me. A conductor can easily remain a distant figure, not a human being but a manifestation of his career bubble. Even the best orchestras in the world scarcely know what their conductors are like as human beings.”

After the visit to Bremen, things started happening. Suddenly Peltokoski found himself plunged into the life of a jetsetting conductor, flitting from one hotel room to another, week after week. Still, he keeps his cool and is not intimidated.

“This is what I’ve been preparing for all my life,” he says. “I’ve sometimes worried about what would happen if I didn’t become a conductor, but I’ve never questioned wanting to become a conductor.”

The loneliness has taken more getting used to, even if that too did not come as a surprise. When Peltokoski visits Helsinki every few weeks, he tries to see as much of his friends as possible. But in Bremen, he does not feel lonely.

“It feels like home.”


Tarmo Peltokoski at Ravel Festival. Photo by Romain Alcaraz.

Three different orchestras

On the day after this interview, Peltokoski was scheduled to fly to Berlin, to conduct first the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and then the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. In the previous season, he made his début with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, to name a couple. He continues to make first appearances with a wide variety of orchestras.

“From Berlin, I’m going to Vienna, then to Toulouse for a second time within a short period. Then I’ll be opening my season in Riga and returning to Berlin. My UK début in Manchester is coming up,” he explains.

When the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra decided to appoint him its Chief Conductor, his calendar was already so full that he could not manage his season opening until November.

“I immediately planned out my three-year tenure. I can do whatever I want in Riga, so of course I’ll be doing as much Wagner as possible,” he says with a grin. His first concerts, however, will feature Vaughan Williams on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth – this being a composer that Peltokoski feels is far too seldom seen on concert programmes.

“This year we’ll have Strauss, Shostakovich and some Latvian contemporary music – including Vasks, which I like very much.”

In the autumn, Peltokoski takes up his position as Principal Guest Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. The guest appearance that led to this appointment was not without drama: Peltokoski was roped in as a last-minute substitute for Valeri Gergiev last May. The visit was unconventional otherwise too: Peltokoski conducted a grand total of four concerts in each of which superstar pianist Yuja Wang performed Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 1 and Paganini Variations. As an encore, Wang and Peltokoski played a four-handed Hungarian Dance, a video of which was widely shared on social media.

In September, Peltokoski met the Rotterdam orchestra again.

“It’s a nice place to work. They’re a slow Germanic orchestra, it takes seconds to form the sound, and the hall is huge. It’s very different from Bremen or Riga. So I have three very different orchestras.”

Like the Kammerphilharmonie, the Rotterdam orchestra is a world-class orchestra with a prominent international profile. Peltokoski will be obliged to curb his Wagner enthusiasm, as in Rotterdam that is very much the province of Honorary Conductor Yannic Nézet-Seguin.

“He’s rehearsing in Rotterdam for his Ring at the Met. But it’s not Beethoven and Brahms that I’ll be conducting there,” says Peltokoski.


Via symphony to opera

Peltokoski’s calendar is now blocked off for years to come, mainly with work with his own orchestras. However, opera is what he would really like to do, and there are opera engagements in the pipeline, although he is not yet at liberty to talk about them.

“These orchestras form the starting point for my career. Although I’m dreaming of being engaged at an opera house, there’s time enough for that. Now I have the chance to do as much Mahler and Strauss as I want.”

"I’m very much an improviser. In Bremen, I can explore that and encourage the musicians to do the same."

Nevertheless, opera is Peltokoski’s principal interest. He is constantly studying at least two new operas along with all his other repertoire. On his visit to Berlin in September, alongside conducting he went to see the Ring at the State Opera, where the cast included Mika Kares – the instigator of the Wagner performances at Eurajoki.

“In Berlin, Mika sang Hagen, which he had only just rehearsed with me at Eurajoki a month earlier,” says Peltokoski with amusement. Daniel Barenboim having cancelled, the Berlin Ring was conducted by Christian Thielemann. Peltokoski points to Thielemann as his role model as an opera conductor.

Peltokoski’s instrument, the piano, is of course an important tool in learning repertoire. He also relaxes at the piano, improvising jazz.

“I’m very much an improviser. In Bremen, I can explore that and encourage the musicians to do the same,” he says. “We might take a repeat faster without anything being agreed beforehand and without myself even being aware of it five seconds earlier. You can’t do that with everyone. Each concert is different.”

Peltokoski also enjoys the variability of a touring orchestra’s programme and the opportunity to programme unusual repertoire such as Alfred Schnittke.

“If Bremen is the best thing in my life, Eurajoki is certainly the next best thing. It’s a great privilege that I’ve been able to learn and conduct the Ring and Tristan at this timeand I hope I’ll be returning to them many times in the future.”


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Featured photo: Peter Rigaud

This article was originally published in Rondo magazine in November 2022.