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INTERVIEW | Talking Conductors and Composers With Hannu Lintu

By Paul E. Robinson on March 2, 2017

Hannu Lintu (Photo: Veikko Kahk)
Hannu Lintu (Photo: Veikko Kahk)


Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu will be appearing as guest conductor with the Toronto Symphony for concerts March 22-23, 2017. This will be his third engagement with the orchestra. His program includes Incidental Music from The Tempest by Sibelius, Accused: Three Interrogations for Soprano and Orchestra by Magnus Lindberg, and the Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale” by Beethoven. The 49-year old Mr. Lintu grew up in Turku, Finland, studied with Jorma Panula at the Sibelius Academy and is now chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, a post he has held since 2013. Paul Robinson spoke to him recently about music, his training, and his forthcoming TSO concerts.

Like so many Finnish conductors you studied with the legendary Jorma Panula. Panula’s students include Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Sakari Oramo, Mikko Frank, Osmo Vänska and Susanna Mälkki. Why has Panula been so successful training conductors? What is his secret?

First of all, Panula has an instinct for recognizing conducting talent. He seems to know who is gifted even before teaching begins. Secondly, he doesn’t teach technique. He lets his students do what they want as long as they show what they want and express their own ideas. It is a very essential part of this Finnish school of conducting that we don’t talk much. Conductors like Celibidache talked a lot but I feel that he was simply showing off how much he knew. Conductors like Abbado and Panula believe that the musicians already know a lot and don’t have to be told what to do. The conductor should try to work with them to raise the performance to a higher level.

Panula does not do so much teaching. He is more like Joda. What he does is a kind of Zen. Just being around him and having discussions is really inspirational. Another point he emphasizes: a conductor must have the will, a strong need to express how he feels about the music he conducts or he will not succeed.

When you were young who were the conductors you most admired?

I was ten years old and playing the cello when I saw Leif Segerstam conduct Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Savonlinna Opera Festival. It made a deep impression on me, how he could control such large numbers of people — players, chorus, and soloists. He was a great opera conductor and seeing him, that’s when I decided I wanted to be a conductor. I admired Solti, and I still do. I was introduced to the Mahler symphonies and Wagner operas through his recordings. I also admired Bernstein for the courage he had to do things as he did. I admired Abbado too for his ability to keep the music moving, without stress. And Haitink has this ability too. Then there are the older conductors. Everything I hear by Jascha Horenstein is fantastic. And Artur Rodzinski too. I admire Mahler too as a conductor. Obviously, I never saw him conduct but just reading about him, and his ideas about conducting and repertoire. He must have been a great conductor.

You have been a great champion of the music of Finnish composers. Obviously, this is an important part of your heritage. But I was especially intrigued with the Playlist you created for a magazine article. You called it “Interconnectedness and Nature.” Clearly, you have very strong views about what it means to be a Finnish composer, how Finnish composers relate to nature in their own country. Can you elaborate on that idea?

This goes back to Panula too. We did a lot of Haydn – he didn’t much like Mozart or Beethoven — and a lot of Sibelius. And just as important in his classes was Finnish contemporary music — composers such as Rautavaara, Sariajo, Aho. We learned that it was important to learn how composers think, often by talking to the composers themselves. If I understand what Rautavaara thought it is possible I might understand better what Beethoven thought. Of course, music sounds different nowadays, but I think that the process is the same.

We Finns have some strange connection to nature — I think the Japanese have the same — we observe the sky, the forests, the lakes, and the weather. But it is not just a practical matter. It is metaphysical. I would suggest you listen to a work like Tapiola by Sibelius and that will tell you what the relationship is between Finns and nature. We understand that there is in nature something we can’t see or understand, that it is bigger than we are, and that it will be here long after we are gone. This idea is expressed in many different ways in music by Finnish composers such as Sibelius and Rautavaara.

Magnus Lindberg is a contemporary Finnish composer who has achieved a great degree of international success. He has been composer-in-residence of the New York philharmonic and his works are played all over the world. You are playing one of his recent works in Toronto. Can you tell us about Lindberg and about the piece?

He started as a modernist and I don’t think he would be offended if I said that he is now going in a more romantic direction. And a good sign of that is that he is now composing for the voice — in the past he didn’t write any vocal music. Accused is a piece commissioned by the Canadian soprano-conductor Barbara Hannigan and premiered about two years ago in London. Each of the three movements is an interrogation involving various historical and political elements — Dreyfuss, Bradley Manning and the CIA, and the East German Stasi — in which the singer is both the one who asks the questions and the one who answers. I think it works well. We played it in Helsinki before Christmas, and my musicians who have played everything Lindberg has written thought it was his best work so far.

This coming April you are conducting the Sibelius Kullervo Symphony in a staged version at the Finnish National Opera. But this is a symphony, or a choral symphony if you will. How are you producing it for the stage and why should it be done this way?

It’s a ballet, and the choreographer is one of the finest I know — Tero Saarinen — and Kullervo tells a story from the Kalevala that is told in the course of the five movements, and it is very dramatic. Kullervo is not really a symphony — Sibelius didn’t know what to call it. It is really five separate symphonic poems. Sibelius was young and thinking about writing an opera although he never did. I think Kullervo is a hybrid piece, and as such, I think it is entirely possible to stage it as a ballet. Saarinen has the male chorus on stage with the dancers and the orchestra in the pit, and all of them on stage are moving in different ways. It is very effective.

You are chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. You get to conduct practically anything you want, including a lot of contemporary music. You don’t have to worry about fundraising or marketing — it must be a dream job!

It is. First of all, I have an orchestra in my hometown. It is very rare for a conductor to go to work from your own home. The orchestra gets its money from the Finnish Broadcasting Company, which gets its money from the government. And it is the law that the government must support Finnish culture. We play a lot of Finnish music, and we are happy to do it. We also tour a lot. We just gave concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg and last year we were in Vienna and Salzburg, next year we are in Berlin, Munich, and Madrid. We also play Baroque music and we have baroque specialists come regularly as guest conductors.

At a time when very few orchestras and conductors have recording contracts, you are making recordings regularly in Helsinki, mostly for the label Ondine. How is this possible? Who provides the money for all these recordings? Is there a market for them?

We play in the concert hall of the Helsinki Music Centre, quite a new hall, and it is equipped with microphones and recording equipment. All we have to do is press a button. We have a good relationship with the Finnish record company Ondine, and for them we record a lot of Finnish music but also Berio, Mahler and Prokofiev, and soon we will record all the Lutoslawski symphonies. We are very lucky. We make four or five recordings a year for Ondine – these are studio recordings not live – and some of them are selling well, especially a set of the Sibelius symphonies with analysis on DVD (Arthaus Musik DVD 101796). From another perspective, these recordings and the preparation required, are helping us become a better orchestra, and a better-known orchestra. The recordings are our calling cards.

Many American and Canadian orchestras are presently looking for new music directors – Toronto, Dallas and Detroit among them. Can you imagine taking one of these jobs, knowing that your role would probably be much different from what it is with your radio orchestra? With a North American orchestra you would be much more concerned with fundraising and marketing, and you would have many more people telling you what you could play and what you couldn’t play.

Yes, especially the marketing department. I know, I know! Well, things happen. If a North American orchestra asked me to come as music director a lot would depend on the city. Cities are so different — almost like different countries — and I would have to ask ‘Do I want to work in this environment? Is it inspiring?’ Of course in Finland, I have to do lobbying and planning, but with a North American orchestra, I would have to do 500% more. But I would consider it.


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