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The BSO and the Dynamic Power of Finland

John Storgårds
Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds

Saturday, September 25, 2021
8:00 PM

In an encore broadcast from 2019, John Storgårds leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Finnish music past and present, including works by Saariaho and Sibelius.

John Storgårds, conductor
Martin Helmchen, piano

Kaija SAARIAHO Ciel d'hiver
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 6
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 7

Encore broadcast from January 26, 2019

Hear an interview with conductor John Storgårds and CRB's Alan McLellan about this program in the audio player above.


Alan McLellan [00:00:00] I wanted to ask you about yourself. You've had a career as a violinist as well as a conductor. How did you get from violin to conducting?

John Storgårds [00:00:08] It was stepwise thing because I was, already as a student, I started to be a leader in all kinds of chamber groups and chamber ensembles, chamber orchestras. And that seemed to be very much my thing, concertmaster, a leader of different things. And and then, of course, if you are an active leader, you also read a lot of scores and you are really interested in a lot of stuff. And you can get very critical towards different conductors who you are working with because you think that, "I know, I know what is the essence here, and what should be done, and what is important and what is less important," things like that. And and maybe that was a kind of push for me to get the interest to at some point go in front of the orchestra and become a conductor. I was not really actively planning to do that. But then I was asked to become the chief conductor of the main symphony, amateur symphony orchestra in Helsinki, the Helsinki University Symphony Orchestra. And that was actually a very big step because then I was first time confronted with the situation to stand in front of a big symphony orchestra who wanted to do big symphonies. And I didn't really have the education and knowledge about how to deal with that. I just had my musicianship from chamber orchestras and well, that's a good thing to have, but it's not enough. So then I went back to school, to the Sibelius Academy Conductors class, and then I was already in my 30s. So it really didn't come very early and not in one step. It was little by little. And then after some years, it has become the main thing. If you look at how how much concerts I do as a conductor nowadays compared to how much I play, but I still play and I never stopped playing. I never put away the violin. So it's still a part of me, also, being a violinist, and as far as I can keep it that way, then I feel it's me. So it's right.

Alan McLellan [00:02:27] So stepping out of the orchestra from making the sounds to leading the ensemble is not that difficult to transition for you.

John Storgårds [00:02:38] No, well, when you have this experience of being a leader, then the step is not so far really. And as a string player, I mean, I don't say that you have to be a string player to become a good conductor, but it is an advantage. I still feel that it is an advantage for me. Not only that I have the origin, but also that I have the actual contact still there. I practically could any time take the violin and show what I mean, if it's needed. I usually, I don't do it in front of orchestras, but I think most orchestras can feel that what I'm saying comes naturally because I have that contact with the instrument still.

Alan McLellan [00:03:18] And there's a there's a confidence factor, that the musicians have confidence in you, because you're one of them in many respects.

John Storgårds [00:03:25] Yeah. Sometimes even if they don't know, depending on where I am, not everybody knows that I'm a violin player. But often during the period, at some point they they come and ask me, "Are you a string player? Are you a violinist?" Whatever, because they, somehow they feel it or they get it from how I work or what I say or maybe also how I use my hands. I don't know.

Alan McLellan [00:03:48] I want to ask you about this program, which is a Finnish program, in many respects. There's Finnish music and then there's Mozart. So how does a Mozart tie in?

John Storgårds [00:04:00] I think it's wonderful to have the Mozart there because, well, as we know in the piano concertos, especially Mozart was the most deeply inspirational. The really great Mozart comes out of these pieces more than in most of his also other fantastic pieces. But when he wrote a piano concerto or when he was working on operas, I always feel that then he was really in the essence of what he wanted to do. There's so much fantastic things in his piano concertos, characterizations, change of mood from delicate, dolce kind of softness to very big dramaticness. And in that sense, I think that's a very classical thing. It fits very well between the kind of drama and color in Kaija's music and also the late Sibelius pieces, in this case, the Sixth and the Seventh Symphony, which, first of all, are very different from each other as pieces, but both of them also are so much about getting characters and sounds right. And I think Mozart fits very well within this.

Alan McLellan [00:05:19] Kaija Saariaho's "Ciel d'hiver" is on the program. And have you had a long history with Kaija Saariaho? Do you know, have you had a personal connection?

John Storgårds [00:05:30] Yes, we know each other very well and I, I've known her really since she was still within the Sibelius Academy circles and I was a young student there and I was playing in the student orchestra and I was playing "Verblendungen," which had a German name, this piece, before all the Frenchness that came into her life later on. And that was one of her main first pieces. And since then I've had a connection with her. When I became very actively concertmaster in the Finnish Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, Kaija was very strongly connected with that orchestra. We did a lot of world premieres and Finnish premieres of her pieces. I played a lot of her stuff. She got to know me mainly as a violinist firstly. And then she also wrote the chamber orchestra version of her violin concerto, "Graal théâtre," for me. And I did the world premiere as a soloist of that violin concerto chamber orchestra version. And I also recorded it. And she also wrote a little beautiful solo piece for me called "Nocturne." And I played a lot of her string quartet, "Nymphéa," those times. So really as a violinist already, I got to know her language and her vocabulary in every sense in how she writes music very deeply. And then later on, when I started conducting also her music, it felt for me like being totally at home because I knew that language so well already. And as persons also, we know each other well.

Alan McLellan [00:07:06] Interesting. Yes. I was going to ask you about the sound of her music, that she really creates atmospheres. And in the case of the "Winter Sky," it seems like she's creating an outer space as well as an atmosphere, and she does that very creatively. Can you talk about how that works and what makes it distinctive?

John Storgårds [00:07:34] Well, she's a brilliant orchestrator. She knows exactly what kind of colors she wants to get out of the orchestra and how to do it. And then another thing is that even when she maybe doesn't always use all kinds of material, the way she demands the performers to play this material, that's the main thing. I mean, for the same kind of small passages that can look very simple in the score, she might try it for a few bars "molto calmo," which means very tranquil. And then suddenly she writes "disperato," and you have the same kind of notes and material there. So it's so much about how to approach these notes, and what kind of character, and what kind of sound the performer has to get out of it. And it's very clear, everything in the tools she gives for this, without being complicated. I mean, a typical Kaija Saariaho score doesn't look very complicated and it is usually not very complicated. But you really have to take seriously all these markings which are all over the piece. And that makes it so rich if you really get all these differences in in characterizations and colors all over the way. And and I always see her music as colors with a lot of storytelling and a lot of dramaticness within.

Alan McLellan [00:09:09] So again, relating to Mozart's drama, but in a completely different sense.

John Storgårds [00:09:16] Yeah, different vocabulary, definitely. But, well, both composers have a lot to say.

Alan McLellan [00:09:23] Well, I want to ask you about Sibelius, but before we leave off Mozart too, too far, I wanted to ask you about Martin Helmchen. Have you worked with him before?

John Storgårds [00:09:31] Yes. Not so many times, but enough to know that I love to work with him. And I think he also likes to work with me. So I'm really looking forward. And we haven't done this piece together before. We have done some Beethoven and we have done Schumann together before. So I'm really looking forward now to do Mozart.

Alan McLellan [00:09:56] Yes. This E flat concerto, is it different from the other ones that he was writing at the same time?

John Storgårds [00:10:01] As I've spoken, he was so inspired always with his piano concertos that you see it in every bar, all over, and in this particular piano concerto, he really gives a lot to the orchestra there. They are very important big passages for not at least for the wind players and all over the score. It's really a big piece, as much for the orchestra as it is for the soloist. And of course, that's always great if you can have that.

Alan McLellan [00:10:34] Absolutely. Give them something to stretch themselves on. These two Sibelius symphonies. We see them on recordings sometimes together. Do you feel that's a good connection, the Sixth and the Seventh? He wrote them a year apart, I guess.

John Storgårds [00:10:53] Yeah, well, he was partly working with Five, Six, Seven, all these three last symphonies before he continued working on the eighth that never got ready. Of course, it's natural because they were on his desk the same time, all these symphonies, that you have a connection, and especially to put Six and and Seven in the same program works very well. Now, I know that many conductors do it "attacca," if they do Six and Seven, just going without any break from No. 6 to No. 7. I was thinking about this, but I decided not to do it like that. For me, No. 6 is such an individual, very special piece of its own and the way it disappears, the music in the end, I think it needs to just breath away, and then you take a little break, and then after the little break, you can take some applause and you have to kind of get it into your soul and then you're ready for number seven. So I don't want to do it totally "attacca," but it will be almost like "attacca" anyway.

Alan McLellan [00:12:02] You have to kind of take Sibelius at his word that that's what he wanted to do. He made them two symphonies for a reason, I think.

John Storgårds [00:12:08] Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And they are in the end, they are very different pieces. The Seventh, it's also a demanding piece and also a very special piece. And all this, like a fantasy in one movment, which it is, already makes it very different from the Sixth. But also in terms of sound and approach to expressiveness and sound, it's very different from No. 6. So I think it's good to have a little break also in that sense between them.

Alan McLellan [00:12:37] The kind of evolution within the seventh. Saariaho kind of reminded me a little bit of that, the sense of growth of a theme and the growth of little sparks of motives and stuff like that.

John Storgårds [00:12:50] Yes, I think so, too. I'm not sure how much Kaija herself wants to be related to Sibelius. I think with many Finnish composers of our days, it has been very important also for them to to keep a distance to Sibelius. But in the end, of course, we all know our Sibelius, and not at least being grown as Finnish people within the Finnish circles of music making. And I think for any composer who studies especially the late Sibelius pieces, there is so much sense and essential things in how he shows what you can do with just little material and make it huge. And I think that's something that Kaija definitely has achieved too, to not write too many notes, but to get so much drama and life into it.

Alan McLellan [00:13:46] Yeah. And to work with small means and make them bigger and bigger. Yeah. Yeah. I'm fascinated by her, or, it seems, she's fascinated and therefore the audience gets fascinated with the night sky and the sense that music can express that. I wonder if you could talk about that, how she expresses the sky.

John Storgårds [00:14:09] Well, for her, it's, in any sense in all her music she creates a colorful space of its own and then she puts interesting names to all these pieces. And of course, she wants with that to give a hint of in what direction certainly her own thoughts have been going, in the concept of how to do the piece. But I don't think, on the other hand, that it's so important for her that everybody takes the name of the piece as such a big thing. I think it's, as with all good compositions by good composers, different people can hear it very different ways and get a lot of impressions that goes in very different individual directions, depending on who you are talking with, who has been listening to the piece, and even people who don't know what they have listened to or don't know the name of the piece, they can still be very affected about it. And I think that's the best thing with any good music. So personally, of course, it's a nice name for this piece, but why not? And it is this time of the year and with this chilliness and winter now around, it's fine, but still as pure absolute music also. This is something that I'm sure will grab the listener.

Alan McLellan [00:15:35] And they could put another name to it, and could still be as valid. Yes. Yeah. I think sometimes composers themselves write a piece and then they listen to it and then they decide what they want to call it.

John Storgårds [00:15:50] Yeah. I don't know in which order it has been in this case, but for sure that's how it can be.

Alan McLellan [00:15:58] Well, thank you so much. Where do you go from here? Back to Europe?

John Storgårds [00:16:02] No, I go to the National Arts Center Orchestra in Ottawa, and there is Arvo Pärt and there is Beethoven with Bronfman, and there is Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 5, which the National Arts Center Orchestra has never done before. By the way, which is dedicated to Sibelius without permission. Vaughan Williams was a big fan of Sibelius, and he did this with his Fifth Symphony. Actually, the Fifth Symphony of Vaughan Williams is not far at all in expression and sound from Sibelius Sixth Symphony.

Alan McLellan [00:16:38] Is that your favorite Sibelius, the Sixth?

John Storgårds [00:16:41] Good question. Always when I do it and it really works, that time, I feel that, yes, nothing can be better than this, but that can happen some other time with some other Sibelius work somewhere else, you never know. Generally I see all his symphonies as very important masterpieces and you can have fantastic moments with any of them. But No. 6, as it is even for for him, if you compare it to anything else he did in his life, this is one of his most special and most individual pieces.