Sakari Oramo is the Chief Conductor of BBC Symphony Orchestra (he has been in this position from February 2012), and appears with BBCSO both in their winter residence at Barbican Hall and in their summer residence in Royal Albert Hall during the BBC Proms season. Sakari Oramo is also the Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, having been in this position since 2008. Before coming to BBCSO, Oramo was the Principal Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (from 1996), and also from 2003 to 2012 he was the Principal Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Thus, Sakari is used to dividing his time between Britain and Scandinavia. He is married to Finnish soprano Anu Komsi, and between 2004 and 2018 they both were running the West Coast Kokkola opera in Finland that staged many innovative productions. We met with Sakari at the premises of BBC studios in Marylebone, where he was rehearsing with the clarinetist Martin Frōst.
I asked Sakari to talk about the details of conducting profession to which he happily agreed saying that it was the most interesting thing to talk about.
Yulia Savikovskaya: I’ve been always fascinated by the question as to when do you think comes the moment when you realize that your perception of the world as a musician is different from the non-musician one?When does this moment come and what do you experience?
Sakari Oramo: A-ha (laughs), yes, that’s a very fundamental question! In my case I grew up in a family of musicians and many, if not all, of my relatives are musicians of some kind or have been at least. It is actually very difficult to remember in such an environment that there are people who have no clue at all about our world. And it feels completely natural to you: it’s the same when you are in astrophysics or in biology, as people get kicks from different things. But I think that what music can give to people – even to those who are not professionals or don’t even have an ability to play an instrument – is a wide view of the world, a different approach to it. And that’s why I hope that as many people as possible would be interested in music and get exposed to good music.
But did you feel that you had some level of perception that other people had not, that audio perception of the world was more fundamental to you than to others who would just pass the music emanating from somewhere by without noticing it? And you would stop and listen?
Yes, absolutely, oh yes! Actually, I don’t like background music where it kind of flows past and where you don’t really listen but just kind of notice it is there – to me it is irritating. So I avoid restaurants with music levels beyond the very, very soft ones, and I think this thing about listening with concentration – it is actually one of the only moments nowadays when someone can sit down and completely close out everything else. When one can be a part of common experience of listening to music. I think that hundred years ago there were much more possibilities of sitting down and concentrating as there were no phones and no information (abundant now) that takes away the attention to certain things.
So when listening to music you become one channel instead of almost multi-channeling your perception as we are used to do?
Exactly, yes, yes. And that’s the value of listening to music in a concentrated way.
Delving once more into your past - I was surprised to find out that Finland has always had the same system of musical education as Russia. It has free music schools and music education open to all. Do you think that if you had been born in another country you would not be where you are?
That is very hard to know because I came from such a musical background. It was like the air I breathed as a child. But for many other people this is certainly the case. This possibility to study music from a very early age, good level education and it being free of charge – I think it has been very important for many musicians. But I must repeat I don’t really fall into that group because I would have got it anyway somehow from my family and from my immediate surroundings.
I also know that during your youth and formative years you joined the to-be-famous circle of musicians who were trained by Jorma Panula. Could you describe his system a bit? There are myths about his method of conductors’ training, but what is so special about his system and what did you learn from him?
Jorma Panula is still around and teaching, but he is already quite old, he is reaching his 90s soon. There are many things about his system. First of all, he was always very clever in the way he chose his students. So, to be able to come into his class, you had to be a fully-fledged musician already. You had either to be an instrumental performer or a singer – so it was not for beginners. And what Jorma gave me was practical approach to conducting. It was about how to organize a rehearsal, how to transmit your message to players as clearly as possible, how to behave in front of an orchestra, how to do the manual work so that it is as clear as possible and you have to say as little as possible. Those are the things that he gave to all his students, and I think different people then developed and used them in different ways. I don’t think there are two of his students that are similar, we are all different, because he was able to develop the personality of each of us. But there were also many things that we didn’t get from him – for instance, how to manage a life as a conductor, that’s quite an important thing, because many people have to live it, and it is actually quite a difficult thing to do. You have to balance things and programming your future concerts. It was always like that: we went in and conducted music that had been given to us – with an orchestra, and every week – then we watched the videos and discussed our movements during conducting, and that’s it. So, I think there were not enough of all aspects of a conductor’s life. Also, I think it is really important for a conductor – and that’s what Panula always said – to be interested in arts, sculpture, paintings, literature, architecture, and all other things, so that you could have a fully-formed philosophical idea of the world.
It is interesting, because on the one hand you are meticulously specializing in one thing and on the other hand you become a Renaissance figure who knows everything.
Yes, that’s right, and he specifically made us curious about things. He did not think we should know everything, although he himself is a very civilized man, I don’t think that any of his students know as much as he does about the arts, but he made us open our eyes to the fact that we need to be curious.
You started out as a violinist. Do you remember that moment when you made a transition from being a concertmaster and left this profession to become a conductor? How does your inner focus change then? What do you pay attention in music after this shift? You still perform or prepare the same music, but the perspective, the viewpoint has changed.
First of all, the very big difference between a concertmaster of any orchestral musician and a conductor is that conductor works alone most of the time. You work alone with a score and then you come somewhere where the people who are supposed to play it are. As orchestral musicians may be you play a little bit of your part alone, but basically you are always within the group and you are part of a social and artistic entity. As a conductor you come from the outside – you’ve done your work in quite an abstract manner in a way, and then you come and start implying your decisions with the players. That’s the fundamental difference in terms of social position. So that was something that I was very slow to understand and accept – that I was not any more a part of the group.
Did you have to study how other instruments in the orchestra function? What did you do to develop this knowledge?
I had a long process of learning how to conduct wind and brass players so that they feel comfortable. There were many issues but there were things about breathing and how they approach it. It is as important as bowing for a violinist. It is the same for them. And I also had to learn the peculiarities of each group, because a horn is not the same as a trumpet, but this thing about making them feel comfortable with your beat – I think it took a while to understand. At the time I talked to several of my friends who were wind or brass players, I asked them about what kind of beat is good for a certain situation, would they prefer a short sharp one or a longer one to make sure that the point of contact with the sound after the breathing is very clear.
Are you saying that you developed specific gestures for each group of instruments?
Yes, but nowadays when I have worked as a conductor for almost 30 years, I can use the same movements for every group. But in the beginning it is good to know how percussion player approaches the notes, as it is different from double bass playing pizzicato.
And that knowledge would be reflected in your movements?
Yes, as far as possible, of course, not in a terribly pronounced way. One has to think about those things.
Can I ask you about the mysterious process of reading and preparing the score? It is almost a mythical process which is not so obvious or understandable for a non-musician. Do you read it as a book, do you hear the whole score in your mind? Do you have to read the biography of a composer beforehand? What is happening in your mind?
I am sure every conductor has a slightly different way of approaching this, and there are also conductors who don’t read scores, they just come to rehearsals (laughs) just to try to make it open. This is also something you develop with time – your own way of reading the score. I have a set of markings that I use. I usually don’t mark my scores very heavily, but I do a certain thing about grouping bars, and I have certain symbols for groups of three or four bars. It determines the rhythm. So if you have, for instance, music that goes quite quickly in just one beat per bar, it is really good to have shape for bars in order to have phrases according to the harmony, rhythmic and melodic shape. And then I am just using the method where I read the beginning and the end very carefully and then fill in the details in between. So it is quite tricky and important to differentiate various elements in the score, especially if it is really thick late Romantic or contemporary music. As to your question whether I read it like a book – yes, I guess I do in a way. And the process depends also on whether I have already played the score with the orchestra or it is completely new for me. It is a different level of knowledge. But even in music that you have conducted many times you can always find new things, to apply a slightly new approach, to see the entire piece in front of you more.
Yes, that is what you say about Sibelius symphonies – that you see them as a whole and approach them from the context of previous playing them and hearing them. In the way, then, it is not like reading a book, because you would not read one book eight or nine times...
Yes, that’s true. You go deeper each time. Then with music which is less familiar you go more into the details because you don’t know them well enough. This is quite a long process – to get from that stage of approaching a new work to the stage when you feel that you have mastered an entire piece. It is just sitting or standing and looking at the score – not really listening to it, not even trying to hear it, as this is a different process. It is just looking at what is actually there.
Do you find listening to other recordings helpful or not?
It can be sometimes. My memory is strongly based on hearing, so when I have heard something for the first time, I already kind of know it in many ways, and that speeds up the process. But the downside is that you should not let another interpretation affect the way you read the score. So if a colleague has done a solution which is not quite what you think it should be, you absolutely should not be trying to imitate it. Of course, all conductors in the world imitate each other – they imitate Karayan, or Toscanini, or Mravinsky, or whoever you like in the previous generations. Not so much the contemporary ones. And there is also a layer where you actually don’t know that you are in fact imitating someone. This is also possible – it could be your teacher for instance.
I also know that you brought to public attention some composers that were not considered well known – John Foulds, Szymanowski, Enescu. How do you bring them to the surface? Do you research many other musicians before focusing your attention on these ones? What do you have to know to find these lesser well-known names – do you have to research one hundred to bring five to the audiences?
Yes, roughly like that – it is a selection process and you have just to trust your instinct about what you think is going to be worthwhile. Nobody can know all music, and some music is very hard to get to somehow, so I am sure there is always much more. Sometimes it is based on a recommendation – that’s how I got to know John Foulds, and the person who mentioned him was not a musician. And that’s actually quite a common way of getting interested in certain figures who had not been in a public eye. I think it is very rewarding and great to bring out music that has been completely forgotten. It is one of the most valuable things you can do really.
Do you feel responsible for your choice? It seems that you become an advocate for this composer?
Oh absolutely, oh yes! This is what a conductor essentially is – he is a composer’s lifeguard. I think it was Hindemith that said that. But yes, there is always some responsibility in bringing out the music that is not so well known, and in a way that respects what the composer might have intended. There is so much music, and 99.9 percent of it has been forgotten. And we only know 0.01 percent of it.
Which is another interesting thing to think about – how exactly these 99.9 percent fall out of public interest and attention.
Absolutely, yes. And there is also the thing – how the history can affect the music. The fact that Nazi Germany had forbidden them at some point still somehow affects their reputation, even though the system has been gone for a long time. I think it is partly due to the nature of the music being played – it repeats itself all the time.
And one also has to keep expectations of the audiences in mind.
Yes, but the expectations of the audiences can be managed, certainly by organizations like BBC. That is why I feel so well here, because I can plan things that are not very expected and unusual. But if one looks at other orchestras of the same calibre – they usually repeat pretty much the same repertoire in a five-year cycle. And the choice of music is usually very limited.
Sometimes the orchestral repertoire is influenced by the fact that the conductor (or the orchestra) is of a certain nationality (Russian, Spanish, German, etc.), while I heard you saying that you don’t think that Sibelius would be understood better by Finnish audiences than by listeners from other country. But still there is a perception that Lugansky should play Rachmaninov, you should conduct Sibelius, etc. What is your stance on this – does music still depend on nationality of the musician that plays it, or is it still within the national bounds, so that people from a particular country play their national music?
It is a good question. I think that it is also part of music business somehow, because music business as a whole likes to pigeon-hole people, because they are easier to market that way. Lugansky plays fantastic Beethoven (laughs), but he is not associated with that. I love conducting Villa-Lobos, for instance, even though I am not Brazilian, very far from the culture, actually. And this is really the way the industry works, and I find it terribly limiting, but, as you said, I think – also, if you have regular exposure to Sibelius’s music from the early age, then of course you understand him better, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be Finnish for that. And I think... I mean also with Finnish orchestras it is the same thing – they play their Sibelius very well, but there is a feeling that they know it even too well, and sometimes they don’t know what Sibelius himself wrote, but they know all the markings of different conductors who’ve conducted it and quite heavily edited the music. I find that it is actually easier for me to get really deep into Sibelius with the British orchestra or in some cases – I’ve had most fantastic experience conducting Sibelius with an Italian orchestra. They played it really really well without any previous knowledge – basically - of the music.
Speaking about this, what were the advantages and may be drawbacks of doing the whole Sibelius symphonies cycle when it was expected from you as it was done for the anniversary of Finnish independence in 2017? Was there any pressure or did you feel honoured to do it? How did you feel about it and how did the whole cycle go in the end?
I felt very good about it, especially since I was allowed to program Sibelius symphonies in a way that would not have been possible elsewhere. So the combination of music that went with the symphonies was very interesting, it shed all different kinds of light on Sibelius’ music – the same we did with Nielsen’s music in 2015. The context is everything. I still think that although the audiences know Sibelius’ 2nd and 5th symphonies and his Violin concerto very well, the rest of the music is pretty unknown – even here in the UK which is still the best country for Sibelius’ reception outside Finland. It was fascinating to bring out the richness of slightly less well-known works and to put them into the context that really makes them shine in a special light.
I wanted to ask about contemporary music as you have also been its passionate advocate. I myself went to Total Immersion into Esa-Pekka Salonen music in December 2017 and I see that you perform other modern composers. How do you work with them? You are then not a lifeguard anymore as you have to listen to their own opinions, right? How is this process going?
Yes, that’s right. It depends a bit on the composer, as they are very different in their approach. Some like to be very hands on when their music is played, and others want to leave absolutely everything to the performer and just enjoy and be there. I think that both approaches are fine, and also there are combinations of the two. I’ve enjoyed tremendously having a composer talk about his or her music and the process of its creation – it is so interesting to hear how they have thought about their composing process and how they thought what they write should come out. It is really worth listening to what they have to say, and there is a varying degree on the composers’ side of understanding how the orchestra really works. Not everyone understands it, and it is not necessarily reflected in the quality of the music, but it is just the way it is written out, and actually what you want to come out is sometimes different from what you write. That’s why it is always healthy to understand that even all the markings that a composer (modern or not) has done are not absolute – they have to be adapted to characteristics of the orchestra, to the acoustics of the hall, to various different things.
I want to move to audiences’ experience of listening to music and hearing the orchestra work on stage. You (musicians) and us (listeners) seem to be living in two different worlds – you are immersed in it and do it every day, but the listeners have the luxury to hear not only your work, but also that of many others – and if they can, attend dozens of concerts. They could listen to all recordings of a particular symphony while you have been working on your version of it. What activity, in your mind, provides a better view of music – such specialization as musicians get involved in, or the broad scope that a listener can have. Who gets to the core of it in the end?
Of course, when musicians are making music, they are working. It is a fundamentally different situation from just listening to music. Our job is basically to make it possible to listen to music as it was intended to be performed. It is quite a specialist approach – if you think of it, there are not so many similar professions where you kind of curate something, curate the music happening. You put together programmes consisting of various elements to make a satisfying concert. So the listener gets in fact more music. When you work on making music, you are always worried about making it happen and making it work, and there are so many technical aspects about it and many kinds of emotional aspects, because making it happen takes all your concentration.
Actually we are not usually aware of that, but could you reveal what are the things that could go wrong during the concert?
There are some nights when things don’t somehow come together. I don’t mean technically – but musically. I always feel that, and always have to continue and go to the very end. It is a mysterious process, because sometimes everything just clicks like that, and it feels so easy, and sometimes you really have to work hard to make the orchestra concentrate. Sometimes the concentration isn’t quite there – they are tired or worked with somebody not that good before or whatever it is.
What is your approach to conveying your vision to the orchestra? Do you bring up some images from outside world or art, or is it just gestures and nonverbal communication?
It is mostly non-verbal. And for this to be effective you have to have work with an orchestra for a long time. And actually a very important part of conductor’s professionalism is to be able to convey everything non-verbally. But then of course life is very boring if you only do things with your hands (laughs), so you can also use metaphors from whatever actually – make associations with colours, indeed make references to art or mention things from everyday life. They do help to bring the music to a more concrete level, because for me music is always a concrete social thing rather than intellectual one. Of course, there is always an intellectual element involved, but somehow I always want the physical experience to happen.
And what affects the sound of an orchestra?
Everything affects it – the whole attitude of the conductor, his or her psychological state, posture and physicality – all of that makes the orchestra sound different. And they are exceptionally ready to receive different information, as flexibility is in their DNA really. Let’s say, the Vienna Philharmonic will always sound like the Vienna Philharmonic, and they will sound fantastic even if they are conducted very badly. And that’s one thing which is very strong – trademark sound, inherent orchestral culture. But then the downside of that is that then all music tends to sound sort of the same. Beethoven sounds like Strauss, and so on. I find it very interesting to find different sound for different composers.
You said that music was social and physical, so it does require much work on the part of musicians. On the other hand, there is a misconception that music is based on inspiration only, it is just a flow of sounds, you don’t need to prepare either to listen or to play it, and in the auditorium you just come and enjoy yourself while listening to it. In your opinion, how should the audience prepare to understand music, what should our work as listeners consist of?
As a listener, I think, it is always good to come to a concert with an open mind, without preconceptions. On the other hand, it is really good if you are able to prepare, to learn a bit of information about the music that is being played. I would always encourage that very much. A concert always happens in the moment when it does. It is not like a recording – although even a recording is a child of its time, a child of the moment and of the day when it was made. The day of the concert can be very, very different because of everything that surrounds us.
I was also thinking – music is about listening. But when we come to a concert, we have to watch, too, because everyone is in front of us, so the majority of the audience do not close their eyes. It is a rare thing to listen only. So as a conductor, what would you recommend for us to pay attention to in terms of visual information of the concert? I sometimes notice that people’s gazes are just wandering, they have no idea what to watch, what to observe when listening to music.
Yes, that can be very difficult – to understand how to watch. I think it is visually quite interesting to watch the intensity inside the orchestra, between the players. It can be very interesting to watch conductors in terms of how they achieve a very special sound. And I agree that there isn’t terribly much else to watch. But still, seeing an orchestra perform is something very different to just listening to a recording because there is also a visible effort of the people making it. I think it is very good for someone who listens to music in concerts to learn to appreciate the hard work that goes into playing these concerts, that goes into understanding the music in a common way together, as players, and then conveying it to the audience. On the other hand, I also think that many orchestra musicians don’t actually have the concept of the fact that people are watching them. It is a real paradox, but they do pretend that nothing extraordinary is happening and they just play as they usually do. I don’t mean that musicians should be very demonstrative when they are playing, but somehow this concept of people coming to listen but also to watch you is not always absolutely there.
You said yourself that a concert is one of those rare moments when one can forget everything and concentrate, but this very concentration is getting more and more difficult for young people to achieve. One can also ask: ‘Why should I pay 30-50 pounds to come and see a concert if I can stream or download hours of the same music?’. So, what would you say to respond to this argument? Why is the orchestral experience still worthwhile for somebody who is not used to it and is doubtful about coming to a live concert?
First of all, there is nothing like the experience of physical presence of the sound of an orchestra. The particular quality of sound depends on the concert hall and on its conditions, but it is just a different experience. I think that streaming and downloading made an access to music very easy, but it does not really substitute the physical feeling of the sound being in the same room. And also the feeling of the community within the audience – as we are all concentrating on the same thing intensively – all of these 600 or 6000 people. So it creates a magic circle which a stream or a recording never can do in the same way. Streaming can be a really informative and easy way of access to music, but coming somewhere and concentrating is like a social experience also.
How, in your opinion, an orchestra can develop in future? I was thinking when I was hearing Esa-Pekka Salonen’s «Wing on Wing» during the Total Immersion evening in December 2017 that you conducted, when Anu and Pia became the vocal instruments complementing the orchestra, and I was thinking that in future an orchestra could include sounds of voices, futuristic instruments, etc. What could an orchestra of the future look and sound like?
I think that a symphony orchestra as such is pretty set. It is a product of the 19th century, really. Occasionally we do get new phenomena as parts of the orchestra – like that moment with Anu and Pia, or some unusual instruments, or electronic processing of the sounds sometimes as prescribed by composers. However, its organization as such probably would not change very much. So the people who are coming occasionally to join the orchestra are freelancers who are mastering certain instruments that are not part of the orchestra, but they are not a permanent fixture and are only invited for certain projects. Of course, it is relative, as some of them have been around for a long time, like a saxophone, for instance, that is not part of a symphony orchestra. There are some extreme instruments, like a contrabass clarinet which was in the Anders Hillborg piece that we rehearsed today – that monstrous thing that looks like a dragon and sounds very strange, too. Those are the older ones, but then there are several electronic instruments – ondes martenot, for instance. Human voices sometimes – as in Berio’s Sinfonia, there are eight of them as parts of an orchestra with no text. There are also new instruments that, for instance, Martin Fröst plays. It is played with movement – it is called gestrument and was developed by Jesper Nordin. It reacts to the movement of the person and is utterly creative.
Do you also anticipate the change of a music hall? Some people experiment with virtual reality, where you are sat in a closed space and the sound envelops you, being all around at 360 degrees. But do you think that future concerts could also happen in the fields, in hangars, in tunnels?
It is happening already, every now and then. Things like that are being done, but I don’t think they substitute the traditional concert experience. They add to it, they make it more physical and varied.
But do you think that these experiments risk to take over a more conservative and more purist approach to music? Would I be still asking my kids to listen to a recording of Mahler or Tchaikovsky or would I send them to immerse themselves in some VR box from where they will come out fully educated on the subject? Which approach will be prevailing in future?
That is very hard to know, because of course things have been changing so quickly, and there is new technology coming all the time. I am sure it will go that way eventually. Will there be a need of orchestras consisting of living people in 60 years’ time or will some robots replace them? It would be a different thing then...
I want to move to a more practical side of your work and ask about your involvement with BBC Proms and BBC Symphony season. How do you plan both of these, how much time in advance do you work on them, and what is your particular part in this process?
My part is – first and foremost – to take care of the programs I conduct. With BBC it is different than with other radio symphony orchestras, because here the Chief Conductor is a person who actually conducts the most. However, I don’t really control the rest of the Orchestra’s programmes, or indeed the rest of the Proms programmes. I can discuss something, I can give some advice if I am asked about an artist or a piece of music – so I am used as a consultant. But in terms of planning the concerts that I conduct myself – the cycle for that is may be 3-4 years usually. And things are refined are the initial planning. Sometimes we work on an overriding theme during the season, sometimes we don’t – sometimes we just plan to do several different concerts. I think that variation here is very good. Having only themes and themed concerts during the season is a little bit restrictive sometimes.