This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. If you want to get the whole magazine, why not subscribe? We are currently offering five numbers for just £10.
LLike football clubs, symphony orchestras enter the transfer market in the off-season – and I’ve never felt busier than in the summer of 2022.
Just look at the gaps on the map. New York and Chicago are looking for a music director, as are Munich, Amsterdam and Covent Garden. One less league, there are vacancies in the Vienna Symphony, Toulouse, Seattle, Minnesota, Seoul, Manchester, Moscow (several) and more.
The end result is that only two pioneers are sought for all the above positions
Choosing a music director used to be easy. Arrange half a dozen guest conductors in one season and see which ones impress. Then, if the musicians match, turn on the charm and make a salary offer slightly above competing offers and well below the current $4 million cap. Offer made.
However, Covid broke the circuit. Two years without fresh faces on the podium has left musicians unsure of what they want and conductors unsure of how to proceed. The end result is that only two pioneers are sought for all the above positions, and they are so little known to the general public that I cannot vouch for their correct spelling. It goes without saying that they are Finnish. What is it about Finns?
Ever since Esa-Pekka Salonen jumped into Mahler’s third symphony in London in 1983, Finns have risen one after the other – Sakari Oramo in Birmingham, Mikko Franck in Paris, Osmo Vänskä in Minnesota, Susanna Mälkki and Hannu Lintu in Helsinki. Jukka-Pekka Saraste in Toronto and Cologne. Salonen himself ruled Los Angeles.
All these conductors studied under one teacher, Jorma Panula, at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. A rough figure, Panula scans nine participants every year and picks a viola player from the student orchestra as his next patron. He says that when choosing a conductor, charisma comes first.
It is of no use, because there are almost as many charisma in Finland as there are date palms. Panula, as far as I can tell, has no magic bullets beyond accuracy, delivery and basic human psychology. How does a country with as few citizens as Scotland supply so many of the world’s most important bars?
Something fundamental is going on, something that cuts against the grain of management history
I asked Linda Marks, a British agent who spent years dining on stewed reindeer in search of new Finnish canes. Linda places abundance in early learning and social cohesion. “Until recently, all Finnish children learned to play an instrument, and at a much younger age than in most countries,” he says. Sending a young person to university costs only 75 euros per year. Social problems are rare in Finland; I have never seen homeless people on the streets. Young people go to discos and like pop music, but classical music – in fact, all music – is part of their culture. Many Finns go to concerts three to five times a week.
It helps, but by no means a comprehensive answer, because the conditions in neighboring Sweden are not very different and the Swedes still turn to Finland when they need a new conductor. Something fundamental is going on, something that cuts against the grain of management history.
Chapeling has always been considered an immovable art. Many famous fathers tried to pass the baton to their sons, but only two – Erich Kleiber (for Carlos) and Neeme Järvi (for Paavo) – succeeded at a high level. The gift is innate, not transferable. What the Finns have done is to use their remote and impenetrable language to create a collective way of working and a support network that supports progress, and I suspect that at some point it will undermine it.
Right now the second generation and the beginning of the third is coming. The two hot Finns of 2022 – Klaus Mäkelä and Santtu-Matias Rouvali – are 26 and 36. Mäkelä has just received rave reviews on the Oslo Philharmonic’s tour from Vienna to London; Rouvali took Salonen’s place in the Philharmonia Orchestra this season without losing intensity and inventiveness. By the end of this season, each will have a seven-figure check from one of the world’s powerhouse orchestras.
Both are undoubtedly natural conductors with an engaging way of leading the orchestra down familiar paths. Mäkelä’s recorded Sibelius symphonies on Decca are remarkable for their inventiveness for such a young person. Rouvali punches big holes in Arctic icebergs with the heat of her Mahler interpretations.
Behind is 21-year-old Tarmo Peltokoski, who conquered Valeri Gergiev, who was replaced by the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Half-Filipino (and looking half his age), Tarmo spent the rest of the evening away playing the fast book piano with the demanding Yuja Wang.
On paper, it seems safe to predict that bars will continue to bring profit and prestige to the Finnish economy, as mobile phones did in the 1990s. However, there are two caveats.
First of all, orchestras desperately need brand managers, and none of the Finns, not even Salonen, has achieved public recognition outside the concert hall. Adopting a national reticence in stardom may put an end to it, but classical music is dying for lack of striking brilliance, and that quality simply does not grow north of the Baltic Sea.
Secondly, the opera is a Finns-free zone. With the exception of Pietari Inkis, who conducts this summer’s Bayreuth Ring, Sibelius Academy students are not encouraged to continue their studies in the opera pit, which is the fundamental experience of every important conductor, past or present. This is a serious mistake that has prevented Finns from scaling Olympus. Keep this issue in mind as the fanfare rings out over this summer’s massive transfer news. stop press: Mäkelä has been sold to Amsterdam. Six big clubs are still looking for a striker.