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When Classic FM meets Sakari Oramo, conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, on the day he appeared at the Proms, your favourite classical station turns out to be the nervous party. Conductors have a reputation for being prickly at the best of times, never mind just before a concert, yet Oramo couldn’t have been more laid-back.
“I used to get nervous with the Proms,” he says, “but now it’s just like another concert.” He adds quickly: “Of course it’s a special concert, and the Proms audience is something you don’t experience anywhere else.”
On the programme was Igor Stravinsky, whose music audiences in Birmingham will get to know well as the CBSO performs his complete works in its IgorFest.
“My love for Stravinsky comes from my dad, who has done a lot of research on him,” he explains.
I suggest to him that Stravinsky is not an easy composer for a general audience.
“He can be easy or terribly difficult, but it’s essential that, almost 35 years after his death, his output is seen as a whole, and we’re in a position to start forming new perspectives.”
It’s an indication of Oramo’s influence as a conductor that he can push through this sort of programme. And yet, until the early 1990s, he was a violinist with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. But one night in 1993, a year after Oramo graduated in conducting from the Sibelius Academy, the conductor fell ill and the 27-year-old Oramo, as leader of the orchestra, stepped in. Not only did he enjoy it, but others were so impressed that he eventually turned to conducting full-time.
Within a year, he was conducting a televised performance, in Helsinki, of Fauré’s Requiem, and it was a tape of this piece that reached Edward Smith, then the CBSO’s chief executive. This led to a guest appearance with the orchestra in 1995, and the following year he was announced as the replacement for Simon Rattle from 1998.
“Of course, it was a big jump,” Oramo recalls. “Not having lived in Britain, I wasn’t as overawed by the name as I might have been, and at the time I didn’t really know that much about Rattle. But when I arrived I was much more conscious of his impact.”
Oramo, who spoke better French than English when he joined the CBSO, is now fluent in our language. “I can even do a Brummie accent,” he says, and proceeds to speak like a local. So Oramo is now able to communicate easily with his audiences, but how have they taken to him?
“First there was curiosity, followed by a slight dip in attendances for the first couple of years, but it’s never really been an issue. The audience figures have picked up handsomely now, and across the season we’re doing really well.”
He’s also managed to bring them along with a change of direction to the repertoire.
“We’ve done much more English music, with programmes by Arnold Bax and Frank Bridge, and I’ve always been a fan of Vaughan Williams.”
I suggest there’s a similarity between the last of these and Sibelius, a fellow Finn of Oramo’s. The conductor agrees, adding that, “the English composer was always keener to admit that than Sibelius.” Some years ago, a Finnish musician told me Sibelius was particularly popular in Britain but not on the Continent. Does Oramo have a theory as to why?
“Somehow his way of constructing music is different to the accepted way in Germany, which makes his music sound fragmented there. The French think it lacks luminosity and colour, which I don’t agree with at all.”
But on the conductor’s rostrum, the Finns are a major power. An enquiry to Classic FM wondered why Finland seems to produce more of them per capita than any other country – Leif Segerstam, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Paavo Berglund, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and, of course, Oramo, from its population of five million. Why?
“It’s a lot to do with Sibelius, and this is particularly evident with someone like [Minnesota Symphony music director] Osmo Vänskä. But obviously there’s much more than that: a combination of the Finnish temperament and the importance the country puts on music education.”
You may similarly expect Oramo to feature a lot of Sibelius, but “although he’s present he’s not prominent.” Instead, he returns to the English theme and his championing of the composer John Foulds, born in Manchester in 1880, who, towards the end of his life, lived in Calcutta where he died of cholera in 1939. When Foulds was head of music at All India Radio, he embraced Indian instruments 30 years before George Harrison did.
“His music, which has an Indian influence, is very bold and ahead of its time. And when a friend, who’s a music journalist in Munich, introduced me to his Three Mantras, I thought I must find out more.”
It led to an album last year that includes this piece, which is all that remains of Avatara, a Sanskrit opera that Foulds eventually abandoned and destroyed. Oramo is such a fan of his music that a second disc will be recorded next year. His latest release with the CBSO is a live recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.5.
Oramo says: “He’s a composer you just can’t ignore, and the orchestra loves playing his music. I approach it from the score and try not to hark back to previous interpretations. I try to get under his skin, and look for the nervous energy he had.”
As a conductor, Mahler had a reputation for being a disciplinarian, but Oramo seems so relaxed as we sip our tea that I can’t imagine him telling anybody off.
“I’m quite relaxed on the podium, but at rehearsals I can be very insistent. This can lead to disagreements, but I think they are healthy because music without any friction is not very interesting. There are enough orchestras in the world that play with a brilliant sound and with everything in tune. But it’s almost too perfect and lacks that element of tension.”
So what does the future hold?
“For the moment, I’m extremely happy to be with the CBSO until my contract ends in 2008. I’m also principal conductor with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, so it doesn’t leave much time for anything else.”
Is there any interest in opera though, given that his wife – Anu Komsi – is a soprano?
“We are staging an opera festival in western Finland next summer, with an open-air production of The Marriage of Figaro by the seaside, but I have no plans to get involved with the big opera houses.”
Is there an area of music he’d still like to explore?
“People who are trying to sell tickets to my concerts will be horrified by this, but I’m getting really passionate about Schoenberg.”
But don’t be tempted to think of Oramo as an elitist. After all, he launched a series of Bollywood concerts last year at Symphony Hall, aimed at the Indian community.
“We played the music of AR Rahman, who has sold more records than Michael Jackson.”
His plans for this season are similarly varied.
“Obviously there’s quite a lot of Stravinsky as we continue with the IgorFest. Pianist Peter Donohoe will perform Dynamic Triptych by Foulds, which will be the first time this concerto has been heard in public for 70 years. There’s a fair amount of French music that has been a little bit absent in recent years: Debussy’s La Mer and both Daphnis et Chloé and Mother Goose by Ravel. I’m also doing my first Mahler Symphony No.2, and a return of his Das Lied von der Erde.”
Before then, Oramo will be relaxing at home in Finland with his wife and their two sons, aged seven and 15. Are the boys musical?
“The elder, Taavi, sings in the choir, and he plays the clarinet as well. As for the younger, Leevi, he loves playing the electric guitar, and I think his ambition is to be a rock musician.”
Does dad, apart from classical, have any preferences?
“I particularly like jazz, and sometimes I even listen to heavy metal!”
But don’t panic, Oramo has no intention of bringing heavy metal to Symphony Hall.
At least, not for now.