When IAM catches up with the chief conductor of Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Okko Kamu, he has just stepped off stage at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. He was in the city to lead the Hallé orchestra in a programme of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 with pianist Evgenia Rubinova; and Brahms’ Symphony No 3.
Captivating the matinée audience of 1,500, it was a tender concert laced with magic – hard to believe that Kamu had met the players for just one rehearsal only a day earlier. He is a friendly and charming character; rather than a formal interview in his dressing room, the maestro asked to chat over a pint.
He has been described as a sensitive conductor, is this an atmosphere Kamu aims to convey? ‘I don’t want to force the orchestra, as the sound is so delicate; if you try too hard you crack the sound and actually you suffocate the sound,’ he says, adding that he tries to create ‘a natural inhaling in the music that needs to be given some sort of freedom’.
For him an orchestra’s sound should be ‘like chamber music on a bigger scale – a good orchestra acts like a string quartet; they listen to themselves, react, and create a dialogue. My task is to organise those thoughts into comprehensive results’.
And these comprehensive results can be seen at Lahti where, under the 20-year direction of Osmo Vänskä until 2008, the orchestra emerged as a leading authority on Sibelius, aided by the excellent conditions at the 1,250 seat Sibelius Hall in Lahti, designed by Artec.
Between 2008 and 2011, the orchestra’s artistic advisor, and artistic director of the Sibelius Festival, was Jukka-Pekka Saraste. In Autumn 2011, Kamu took over at the orchestra as chief conductor and as artistic director of the Sibelius Festival. In December 2012, his contract was extended from 2014 to the end of July 2016.
The orchestra’s general manager, Tuomas Kinberg, a violinist, musicologist and Sibelius scholar, said at the time that this reflected the orchestra’s plans for Sibelius’ jubilee year in 2015, when Lahti will mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
‘The orchestra has planned many projects with Kamu throughout the jubilee year, for which we are already making commitments,’ said Kinberg.
‘The orchestra has, for example, received a number of invitations to perform internationally, and the annual Sibelius Festival will be more lavish than usual.’
So far Kamu’s tenure has been a success. A little over a month ago the Lahti Symphony Orchestra was awarded the medal of Sibelius’ birthplace in Hämeenlinna. The medal No 42 was given to the orchestra in a prize-giving ceremony in the city on Sibelius’ birthday last December. Numbered medals are given to Finnish or foreign musicians for internationally recognised significant work in which Sibelius’ music has featured.
Previous prize-winners have included Anne Sofie von Otter, Sir Simon Rattle, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Kaija Saariaho. Medal No 41 was awarded to composer Magnus Lindberg.
As well as performing the works of Sibelius internationally (tours to Austria, South America and Japan are already in the diary) the orchestra has an aggressive recording schedule.
To date it has recorded all the Sibelius symphonies; its most recent Sibelius discs are The Sound of Sibelius and The Origin of Fire, as well as recordings of the original versions of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, Violin Concerto and En saga. The orchestra is currently undertaking its most ambitious project to date as the principal orchestra in BIS’ 65-disc complete recording of Sibelius’ music.
The Lahti Symphony Orchestra is to record all seven Sibelius symphonies under Kamu for the Swedish label. The new edition of the complete symphonies will be released as a set on the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth in 2015.
And the maestro is perfectly placed to steer the project – over his long career he has released more than 100 discs on Deutsche Grammophon, BIS, Ondine, Naxos and other labels.
In general [at Lahti Symphony Orchestra and the Lahti Sibelius Festival]we try to give young talented Fins an opportunity. Rehearsal technique is very difficult to learn.
For Kamu the Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s special quality is the fast and hardworking mentality of his musicians, coupled with technical capability and spirit – a resolve that no doubt comes in handy for their extensive recording schedule for BIS. ‘We have done one, three and seven, and we are doing number two in May and then four, five and six within a year or two.’
The 66-year-old conductor, who presently resides in Germany with his flautist wife, is clearly proud of Finnish culture. Previous roles include chief conductorships with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and Finnish National Opera.
He first came to prominence in 1969 when he won the first Karajan International Conducting Competition in Berlin, and has since conducted leading orchestras such as Berlin Philharmoniker, Vienna Symphony, as well as the Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Opera at Covent Garden.
As artistic director of Lahti Sibelius Festival (5-8 September 2013) he is responsible for programming. This year’s theme explores ‘Legends, a Tempest and an Oriental Feast’. On the bill is Lemminkäinen Suite, Sibelius’ masterful score for Shakespeare’s The Tempest; a concert suite from Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast; and the music for the symbolist play Kuolema (Death – featuring the original incarnation of Valse triste).
Rarer works such as the Wedding March from The Language of the Birds, will also feature. Kamu will conduct all of the concerts at the forthcoming festival. ‘It’s an old habit,’ he says.
Though he doesn’t claim to be a pedagogue (‘I don’t like children,’ jokes the father of six, before pulling out pictures of his two grandchildren), he does feel that there are problems in the Finnish education system that could lead to problems later on, both for audiences and talented musicians.
‘Appealing to younger audiences has to be done otherwise they have no idea what they are missing. Education has to start somewhere. In Finnish schools they have minimised the music education and the top talents are not really encouraged. They don’t get that special attention that they need because of the existence of democracy. There is a sort of anarchy in democracy,’ he says seriously.
Is Kamu suggesting a more selective structure to the education system? He nods. ‘In Russia they hoover anybody anywhere – the most talented and the best possible are brought to Moscow.’
And this is perhaps why Kamu is known for advocating a paternal attitude to younger Finnish conductors. ‘In general [at Lahti Symphony Orchestra and the Lahti Sibelius Festival]we try to give young talented Fins an opportunity. Rehearsal technique is very difficult to learn. No one is really perfect at rehearsing and getting the maximum out of the orchestra within a given time – you only learn that when you rehearse with an orchestra.
‘You don’t learn to conduct unless you have conducted an orchestra, you can’t do it by listening to music and conducting in front of a mirror.’