We met with Hannu Lintu at the Helsinki Music Centre before his first rehearsal of Mahler’s Symphony No.8 in August 2018 (it was broadcast by Finnish television around the world and was part of Helsinki Festival 2018), over coffee and tasty Karelian pies. Hannu projected an atmosphere of intellectualism, openness and kindness, and it was revealing to hear him talk about connections between musical histories and lives of two countries – Russia and Finland, and in particular of two neighbouring cities – Helsinki and St Petersburg. He made insights into his work as a conductor, showing how it is made up of daily work, daily perception of new information and continuous self-development. He also spoke about Finnish musical education system and a constant need to nurture younger generations. Hannu Lintu makes you trust him as a leader and as a teacher, and I observed these qualities at work during his rehearsal with children’s and adult choirs later on. His words make you want to know more about his work and go to his concerts to try to see how his ideas are realized in concerts, in the real process of music-making. Although it still remains a mysterious process, some pathways towards understanding it are indicated by Hannu Lintu in this interview.
Excerpts from Hannu Lintu's biography:
Hannu Lintu is the Chief Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. He studied cello and piano at the Sibelius Academy, where he later studied conducting with Jorma Panula and Ilya Musin He participated in masterclasses with Myung-Whun Chung at the L'Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy, and took first prize at the Nordic Conducting Competition in Bergen in 1994. 2018/19 season marks Hannu Lintu’s sixth year as Chief Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Highlights include all ten Mahler symphonies – Lintu opens the cycle at the Helsinki Festival in August 2018 with No.8 “Symphony of a Thousand”, and Finnish premieres such as the vocal symphony version of Zimmermann’s opera Die Soldaten and Thomas Larcher’s Symphony No.2, and concerto performances by acclaimed soloists including Yuja Wang, Evgeny Kissin and Stephen Hough. A regular in the pit, Lintu works frequently with the Finnish National Opera and Ballet, returning in March 2019 to conduct Berg’s Wozzeck. Hannu Lintu has made several recordings for Ondine, BIS, Naxos, Avie and Hyperion; recent releases include Bartók’s Violin Concertos (with Christian Tetzlaff – Gramophone magazine’s “Recording of the Month” in May 2018), Fagerlund’s Stonework (with Ismo Eskelinen) and the final instalment of Prokofiev’s complete Piano Concertos (Nos.2 and 5, with Olli Mustonen), all of which feature Lintu’s principal recording partner, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.
PHOTO BY KAAPO KAMU
Yulia Savikovskaya: The first question I would like to ask is how much in your education you were influenced by Finnish system which is famous for musical education?
Hannu Lintu: You mean, the music schools system?
I think I am a very typical product of the Finnish music school system, because I come from a very small town. In the early 1970s I was really small, but we had a really good music school, and later the teachers wanted me to take up cello, and then at some point I started to go to Conservatory in Turku, 100 km south from my hometown. That is also a very natural thing in our system – we start in a very small music school, and then we go to the Conservatory, and then we go to the Academy – it is like a pyramid. And I think I am a very typical product of this pyramid, as I started from the bottom, and in the end I went to the Academy. I think it is a very good system, because we are a small country, and we need to find our talents. Our talents are not necessarily living in big cities. They can be anywhere. And this is the reason why the music schools system is so important, and I think I belong to the first (or one of the first) generation that is the product of this music school system, because it was established properly only in the early 1970s. I must say that one of the models for this music school system came from the Soviet Union, and I think some of the exam systems for it came from Eastern Germany. The people who developed it in Finland, they travelled a lot and they wanted to find something that really worked, and they wanted to combine Eastern German system with Soviet system and then apply it somehow to Finnish climate and Finnish way to work. And since then I think it has really worked perfectly. We have been able to find some really, really good kids from countryside, from small cities and small villages. So yes, I am a product of that system.
Can you tell me how this idea of being a conductor came to you and developed during your student years? What is so specific about it that makes it different from singing, playing an instrument or composing? Why did it appeal to you?
Well, if I think about it now, the difference lies of course in the range of the repertoire you work with. The amount of great opera and symphonies and concertos we are able to study and are privileged to play is huge, if you compare our work to that of instrumentalists, for instance. But originally I think the first impulse came when I was 10 years old. I had already been playing cello in youth orchestras, and I knew a little bit what conductors did. My parents took me to Savonlinna Opera Festival, and I think it was the first big opera I heard, it was Don Carlos by Verdi. It was my older and distinguished colleague Leif Segerstram conducting this opera, and since I already knew what conductors do, I realized that something very special was happening in the pit. I could see him controlling everything, and I also realized that he was necessary for the performance. That was the moment when I started to think about it. No 10-year old can really decide what he would do in future, so I didn’t go to my Mum and say: «Look, I want to be a conductor», but that was the seed, that was when I started to think that conducting was something that interested me. And everything I did after that was somehow leading towards that goal. When I came to the Sibelius Academy, I later applied for the conducting class – so in everything I did I continued to keep in mind that conducting could be something for me.
Would you say that there was a certain Finnish school of conducting at that point?
No, there is no Finnish school of conducting. If you think of Finnish conductors, we all look different, we all sound different. That is because – especially during Jorma Panula professorship – we could do anything we wanted. He did not have any technical school. He just wanted us to make music: to have musical ideas and then communicate those ideas to the orchestra in our own way. He never told us, you know, that hands should make certain kinds of movement. That means that all Finnish conductors are technically different. We do different things, we sound different. And here is what is really interesting: when I studied with Jorma Panula at the Sibelius Academy, we also had a guest professor, Ilya Musin, who was from St Petersburg. He, on the contrary, had a very strict technical school, and it was a really good combination. But I still think that the secret of Finnish conducting is in that it is free: it is technically free, and it is all about finding yourself as a musician.
PHOTO BY VEIKKO KÄHKÖNEN
Did you go to other countries to enhance your education?
I spent two summers in Siena, to Accademia Chigiana, to study with Myung-Whun Chung, but otherwise no, as there was no need. Helsinki is one of the best places in the world to study conducting, so I was really happy, I did not have to go anywhere.
Could you describe in detail what kind of musical centre Helsinki was at that time? By whom among composers were you influenced, which conductors did you see perform during your student years and then as a young conductor?
When I was still a kid at school, I didn’t hear much orchestral music, because as I told you, I was from a very small town which did not have any orchestra. And later when I went to Turku to study at the Conservatory, I heard a little bit of the local orchestra. Then when I moved to Helsinki – I was 17-18 years old – it was the first place where I heard a real orchestra playing, which was quite late, actually. Of course, I had a wonderful library in my home town, so I listened to every LP and every CD I could find: I was studying symphonies and concerts and other programmes, I was reading scores. But I got first real orchestral experiences only in Helsinki. Helsinki Festival had many wonderful visitors like Philadelphia Orchestra and New York Philharmonic, so I had those big orchestral experiences, but I was already 17 or 18. And then later I travelled a little bit: for many summers I went to Salzburg Festival, I went to Paris and London. But what I learned most from were the rehearsals. The concerts and rehearsals are very different, and to become a conductor you have to know how to rehearse, and you have to know how different orchestras work when they rehearse. I usually travelled to see rehearsals, and I learned different kinds of methods and saw different kinds of orchestras. So this probably influenced me most, but I cannot say that I have a big conducting hero. I admire many conductors, and there are many conductors I don’t like, but there is no one and only hero above others. There are so many fantastic musicians among conductors – I really admire them all.
Did connections with Soviet Union exist in the 1970s and 1980s? Were Russian performers able to come to Finland and did you attend some of those concerts?
Yes, I think we are in a happy position in Helsinki. Helsinki was the first place, the first foreign city to organize a recital for Grigory Sokolov, for instance. He was really young at that time, I was not here, it was before I came to Helsinki. But he played at the Sibelius Academy Concert Hall, and there were probably 16 people attending (laughs). But since then he has been coming every year – he has been this year, too, and now he is like one of our own pianists (laughs), because people just love him. We had Emil Gilels – I heard him live once. Richter came, and of course conductors like Svetlanov and Rozhdestvensky. So I can say that Helsinki was a really, really good place to observe musicians that came from the Soviet Union. All the new stars came here, and I think they were somehow tested by the Soviet government in being sent here (laughs). If they survived and the KGB not detect anything wrong with them, they then might have sent them to Berlin or London. Rostropovich also came: he actually had a house in Lappeenranta, near the border. So I think we are privileged in the way that all great Soviet artists were coming here.
While building up your knowledge of music, could you say that there were preferences among composers that you especially liked and aimed at conducting their work later, and were there any Russian composers among them?
When I was studying, of course, a very big chunk of our studies was Sibelius, which is natural. And the other big chunk was Viennese classical music, especially Haydn. And the third big chunk was contemporary music. Professor Panula always wanted us to conduct contemporary music. And only then, when we had studied all these three categories, we did Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann. I would say that Tchaikovsky, for instance – I loved him since I was a kid. His sound always had a big meaning for me, and there was a time when I started to conduct, when I did my first concerts, I had a feeling that I could not touch Tchaikovsky, that I would destroy Tchaikovksy. But then gradually I started to conduct him – I did the late symphonies, I did his Serenade for Strings, I did lots of his concertos. Finally I felt I had something to say through and with Tchaikovksy, but it took some time. When I started to study conducting, I wanted to learn about such Russian composers as Borodin and Mussorgsky – I love Mussorgsky, especially his early version of ‘Night on Bald Mountain’. It is an incredibly modern piece, and he was such a modern and wild figure. And then there was even a time when I did a lot of Glazunov symphonies, because there was something in him... I admire his technical abilities a lot. And this is what I admire in Russian composers in general – they are always technically first class, orchestration is done in a perfect way. The technique, music and sound are always in good balance with Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Balakirev, Rimsky – whoever it is. It is always technically perfect. Mussorgsky was the only exception – his music just was not played, he could not develop his musical language because nobody ever played his music. And I have the same feeling with Glazunov – there was a time when I found him a perfect composer, with whom all the melodic materials and harmonies and orchestration – everything was in balance. I am not a fan of all his symphonies, but 4 and 5 had been the pieces that I played a lot. And then there was a time when somebody introduced me to Silvestrov and Schnittke. But I am not that familiar with contemporary Russian composers and don’t know very well what the younger generation has done. It was easier when it was still the Soviet Union, as nobody cared if you came from Ukraine or Belorussia or Georgia, it was just Soviet. Now it is much more complicated, and you have to differentiate and know whether they are Georgian, Ukrainian or Belorussian composers. And now I don’t know who Russian composers are at the moment.
Can I ask if you can think now – may it is too early to define yet – but do you feel that you have passed through certain stages in your development as a conductor? Did you have your epiphany moments, did you feel «yes, now I am at a certain new stage in understanding music», or was this development more subtle and gradual, with its stages difficult to define?
Well, I am sure there have been stages and phases. You know, conducting is... when you start to study conducting, you are in your early 20s or even 19-20 years old – the kids are generally around their 20s. And you start something really new, you don’t know what to do, you are horrible, you are really bad. Conducting students sound horrible and don’t know what to do. And it is embarassing, as they are already grown-ups. They do mistakes that 4-year-old pianists do if you see what I mean. They start an entirely new instrument when they are 20 years old. And they can’t play it yet. So it takes a lot of time before they can learn anything, and it is a very humiliating situation, if you understand what I mean. So the first stage for every conductor is when it just doesn’t work. You think that you are expressing and manifesting music in the most understandable way, and then nobody understands it. It is why we have a video system: we videotape everything when we study, and then when we are shown the video, a professor says: «Look, you are not showing anything». So it takes years before you realize that your hands are really expressing something. That is your first stage. And then life takes over: you make mistakes, sometimes your career goes badly, sometimes it goes well, but all the time you learn something. But for me it usually takes some time before I realize that I have learned something. It is not like: «Oh, now I’ve learned it». No, it doesn’t happen like that. Sometimes I realize that I have known something for 6 months, but I had not been noticing it. So it develops subconsciously, cybernetically somehow. So I don’t know what the stages of my career are, except that now I am really happy with how things stand. I have a fantastic orchestra here, I am so privileged to work in my home town, because it is what conductors seldom do. They have to fly somewhere and conduct their own orchestra. I can be here, and walk just 10 min between my work and my home. And at the same time I have good orchestras around the world which I go and conduct, so I don’t know how I would feel about my current career stage in 10 years time if Iook back at it then, but now it feels good.
PHOTO BY KAAPO KAMU
What are the criteria for you personally and when you look at other people working in terms of what makes a good conducting experience and a bad conducting experience. How do you make such judgements when you are on the podium yourself or when you attend the concerts of your colleagues?
It’s a little bit different. Nowadays I find it difficult to go to any concert. Of course, I go to concerts conducted by colleagues, but I find it very hard and very labourous to listen, because I analyse all the time. I can’t just «lay back» and listen. It is very difficult for me now. And all the time I tend to analyse the conductor, register things in his or her work... But I think everything works when I forget to analyse. That doesn’t happen very often, but I suppose that when I stop analysing, it is a sign that it is a very good concert. I am not paying attention to how it is performed any more, but I am paying attention to its musical aspects. And then your own concerts are of course entirely different things. I am very seldom happy with them. I always realize that there are things that did not go well, or things that could have gone better, or I think that I did not manifest a particular thing enough, or the tempo was wrong, or God knows what. And I think the happiest moments are when I feel that the orchestra is happy, when orchestra and me, we both feel that we achieved something together.
How do you sense it?
You just do, you sense it. You don’t talk about those things. Of course, sometimes you talk to the musicians, they come to you, they are happy and say: «Oh, that was a good concert». Ok, then this is the sign that they are happy. But – at least in Finland – we don’t speak much. We are just sensing things. It is something that’s in the air. And when this is in the air, then I am happy. If the performers are happy, it is most probable that the audience is happy, as well. And then I am happy. But that doesn’t happen that often.
How being a musician and a conductor influences your perception of life, your world outlook?
Everything I do is around my profession. I study 365 days a year, I study all the time. When I take a vacation to wherever, I have scores with me all the time. And, you know, I might spend the day by the pool, but then I go and study at least for three hours. It’s a way of life. If you are a conductor, you can never leave your scores. And everything else you do contributes to this, as well. I read a lot and I really think that reading supports music making. I really think that musicians should read – they should know about history, about literature – because everything you read will manifest itself somehow, it helps you to understand composers’ intentions better. If you know about life of Tchaikovsky, if you know about writings of Wagner, if you know about times when Bach lived, it is so important! And this is what I try to do! Eveything I read somehow, as I feel, supports my music making.
Some people are not supporters of biographical method in music making – they think that knowledge of a composer’s biography should be separated from the analysis of his or her music. What is your stance here?
These two things can still be done separately. If you read about Schumann trying to kill himself, or if you read about Tchaikovsky thinking of killing himself, it doesn’t mean that it will help your music making. But it helps you understand the person behind the music, because when you do music, you are always somehow in contact with the composer. It is not about knowing the exact stages or important moments in composer’s life, but it is about knowing the time when he or she lived. You can learn about concert institutions, how orchestras played at that time, what was the way of producing vibrato at those days. These kind of things certainly affect the technical performance. When I conduct, I don’t think about emotional things so much. Emotion comes automatically. But what I think about all the time are technical things: I think about tempo, I think about balance. And the emotion will come automatically. And if this emotion is somehow affected by the facts that I know about the composer’s life, it is fine. I don’t think they are necessary for good music making, but it is certainly good to have a big picture of a composer you conduct.
What is the relationship between such three important parts of orchestral music as composer, conductor and an orchestra? Do you consider yourself a channel between a composer and your orchestra? And how do you transmit your vision of a composer’s music to the musicians in the orchestra? How does it actually happen in real life?
This is a very difficult question. If I could explain it, I would not conduct. I conduct because I can’t verbalise these things. Of course, it is different depending on whether you are working with your own orchestra – when you know each other well and you can start from a certain level of communication – or if you are conducting an orchestra you don’t know, which means that you also have to create a social situation at the same time as rehearsing a piece. What I try to do is always to create a certain kind of sound. My sound probably comes just from the fact that I am there. We have different sounds, no matter what we say or what we do. My orchestra sounds differently when another conductor comes to work with it, and I make other orchestras sound differently just by approaching them. But then of course, if I really want to affect the sound, I always have to go and see the score, and think about the fact that sound comes from the way how notes are connected to each other. In Tchaikovsky you connect the notes differently than you do in Beethoven, for instance. It is mostly about thinking how this note is connected to another, and how that one is connected to the next, because this makes a phrase, phrasing makes sound. And in shaping the phrase you can change the sound. You can do it by thinking about the articulation and about the length of the notes, because that affects the sound.
So in a way, you are thinking not about the notes per se, but about what comes in between?
Yes, I think about what is happening between the notes. That is very, very important. Otherwise music becomes vertical. So, the horizontal aspect is very important in creating the right kind of sound. If you want to, let’s say, play Brahms, you have to look at the slurs, at the legatos. And slurs are different for each composer – what do they mean, what happens when you go from one slur to another? These questions need to be answered, as all these things change the sound. And then the tempo changes the sound. If you meet an orchestra that doesn’t want to change articulation and is resistant to changing its sound, you can just change the tempo, and they will have to change the sound and articulation. You can play the orchestras, because tempo affects a lot of things.
So in way the conductor is the intellectual force behind the performance, isn’t it? You seem to be the one who does all this work of studying the score and the historical context beforehand?
Yes, but musicians always do some work, as well. Especially if are doing a basic repertoire piece, good orchestral musicians always have an idea already. They have their preferred way of playing Brahms or Tchaikovsky or Beethoven. My task is actually also to listen to their ideas, because when they start playing a symphony in the first rehearsal, they also offer me something. I also offer them something, but it is my duty to make a mixture of all this. There are lots of things offered by the orchestra that I would like to accept, but since they are probably offering 85 different things because they are all individuals, it is my duty to make it an entity somehow, to make it sound as if everything had been planned. I realize very often that I have to abandon my own plans, because I get so many very good ideas from the orchestra. Sometimes I realize that I have to change my tempo. Sometimes my entire concept of the piece or composer changes. So it is not only about my ideas, it is also about collective ideas.
Could you describe the process of forming the repertoire and seasons of Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra? What programmes do you choose to play? Do you have expectations of Helsinki audiences in mind? How does the orchestra function as one of the resident city orchestras?
Well, we are Finnish Broadcasting Company Orchestra. It means that we have to do the same things that Finnish Broadcasting Company is doing: we have to support Finnish culture. We have to commission new pieces, we have to play Finnish music of previous centuries, we have to record Finnish music. We are doing it in the same way that Finnish Broadcasting Company is supporting Finnish language: and we are supporting Finnish music, it is one of our main tasks. And then we are playing a lot of contemporary music, as this is what Radio Orchestras do. We tend to be a modern orchestra, we want to show our audiences things they don’t know, and they seem to enjoy it. And then at the same time we are also a big international symphony orchestra, which means that we have to play basic repertoire, as well. We also have to play things that develop our own playing, because the only way to develop a symphony orchestra is to play basic repertoire. And I also want my orchestra to be – and I think they are – flexible in style. So I really want them to play baroque music, because symphony orchestras nowadays play baroque music very seldom. I want them to know how classical style should or can be approached nowadays. Their Beethoven sounds differently from their Brahms. So I want them to be familiar with styles of different composers, and that is why, for instance, we are playing all the Mahler symphonies. I feel that this is the time when we need to embark on this journey, because I want them to develop romantic sound, and also their dramatic sound a little more, and also because there are a lot of young musicians who have just joined the orchestra, and they have never played any Mahler symphony. So it is a really important theme that we need to do as the whole orchestra. Mahler is good in that respect because all musicians are there. With Mahler you need the whole orchestra, 100 musicians on stage. And if you do that kind of journey 10 times a year, it certainly gives the orchestra a very different social and musical way to work. So this is what we have to do – we have to do everything.
But it means that Helsinki audiences will also learn the whole symphonic canon of Mahler with you and FRSO through the year.
Yes, I am sure that they will, and this is what we want them to do. We are basically selling well. We are selling 98 percent of our tickets. And it seems that the wilder my programme is planned, the more they come. If I just give a programme which has a ‘Magic Flute’ overture and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto and Brahms’ Symphony, they don’t come. And if I play a Lutosławski sympony, one of Stravinsky concertos and something by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, then everything is sold out. At the moment I feel that Helsinki has an audience that really wants to experience something new, something else differing from what they have been listening to in the course of the last 30 years. So there is always a shock aspect in my programming, of course there is!
Can you describe briefly the range of modern composers in Finland? It seems to be a very developed scene. On the one hand, you have a generation of Salonen, Lindberg and Saariaho, and I learned about you having worked with Lotta Wennäkoski recently.
Yes, Lotta Wennäkoski, Sebastian Fagerlund, and there are even younger ones. We commission pieces from the youngest generation – that’s what we always do – we commission short pieces, 10 minutes may be, and then we let them develop, and then may be we commission a concerto, and then may be a big orchestral piece. I think that you need to be very systematic with young composers. One piece is not enough, you have to commission more so that they develop. I mentioned Mussorgsky before – he never heard his pieces played – but these kids need to hear their pieces, because otherwise they don’t develop. And of course at some point, when I realize that it is going well, we do a recording. We have just recorded CDs with some young Finnish composers that are not famous yet, but they will be, because even nowadays recordings of contemporary music are really, really important. They will affect these young composers’ careers.
So do you see yourself as someone discovering these young people for the broader audiences?
Well, I have indeed discovered some people, but this is Finland, here everyone knows everybody. So we discover all these people together, and this is what is great in Finland – the system is really supporting young musicians. Yes, we can be critical and orchestras can be critical, but they want to support young conductors and young composers. They are not always happy with them, but they criticize you, give you some constructive feedback, and then they book more concerts with you. And the same happens with young soloists. And at least with composers and conductors it seems to work very well.