Finns’ Baton Charge

Now Sakari Oramo is cheif conductor at the BBC Symphony Orchestra, many fear a Scandinavian supremacy in British music.

Counterpoints Music

It was a morose morning-after at the maestros’ bar.

“What do the Finns have that we don’t?” grumbled a bruised young bean.

“Cellphones,” grunted a gin-and-bitters, “and saunas.”  

Sakari Oramo’s appointment as chief conductor at the BBC Symphony Orchestra has provoked an outbreak of soul-searching in British music. Over four decades, more Finns have taken the baton in this country than any other nationality, including the indigenous Brits. 

It started with Paavo Berglund at Bournemouth in the 1970s, followed by Esa-Pekka Salonen’s explosive 1983 debut with the Philharmonia, where he is now music director. Jukka-Pekka Saraste served the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and BBC Scottish Orchestra. Okko Kamu was principal guest in Birmingham, before Oramo became chief. 

Osmo Vänskää transformed the BBC Scottish, 1996-2002. Rolf Gothoni ruled the English Chamber Orchestra, 2000-09. Hannu Lintu is now chief at RTE in Dublin. John Storgards is principal guest with the BBC Phil while Susanna Mälkki and Leif Segerstam are frequent visitors. Britain has become the main launchpad for Finnish maestros. 

Why? It goes back to Jean Sibelius, who found an enthusiastic reception in 1920s London and saw his symphonies recorded by the LSO, four with his compatriot Robert Kajanus for EMI and all seven for Decca by Anthony Collins. Both were milestones in the composer’s reception and Finns still treasure the connection.

The conductor industry was nurtured at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy by Jorma Panula, a gifted teacher with an eye for leadership qualities. Salonen entered his class set on becoming a composer, Oramo was a promising violinist. Panula put a stick in their hands. The virtues he preached were intensive preparation, collegial courtesy, elegance in performance and an absence of excess ego. Compared to the rest of the peacock breed, they represent the Sibelian clarity of a glass of iced water. 

When they came to Britain, Oramo was chosen as Simon Rattle’s Birmingham successor on the strength of a single concert, an acclamation repeated recently at the BBC. Behind a deceptively mild exterior, he seems to know exactly what sound he wants and how to get it. BBC musicians were positively hopping with energy and anticipation the day his appointment was announced.

Not all the Finns have done equally well. Jukka-Pekka Saraste made little impact in London while Vänskää, refreshing in Scotland, was a tad bucolic for metropolitan tastes (he’s now in Minnesota). 

With one or two exceptions, Finnish conductors operate a mutual admiration society. Salonen tweeted a loud cheer for Oramo’s appointment, and Oramo ushered Lintu into his previous job at Finnish radio. Such kindnesses are uncommon among maestros. Five share the same agency.

Most are domestic creatures. Salonen married a Philharmonia player, Oramo a Finnish singer. All spend nightless summers beside the lakes. Over time, they have changed the public perception of their profession from swaggering ego to gleaming technocrat. They are cordial yet culturally enigmatic, at once approachable and linguistically remote. The Finns have their fingers on our musical future.