From the stage to the pit – interview with Hannu Lintu

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Hannu Lintu on the podium © Veikko Kähkönen

For Hannu Lintu, the Chief Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Chief Conductor Designate of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet, the six-month COVID-19 break will finally end with the opening of the autumn season. 

The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra will resume live orchestral concerts at its Helsinki Music Centre home in September, with modified programmes. The orchestra will perform on its original weekly dates, Wednesday or Friday evenings. Only some of the Thursday reprises will be left out. 

”It was quite a jigsaw puzzle to put together, as we decided to go with all the conductors and soloists of our original programme. We renegotiated everything, so there were no cancellations. Everybody was very flexible, obviously, because people want to get back to work”, Lintu reflects over a coffee at a street café in Helsinki. 

The FRSO and Lintu began planning the modified autumn season around Easter. There will be maximum of fifty players onstage, performing hour-long concerts without intermission weekly at 8 pm. 

”For the autumn season, three different plans have been put together. We have the current fifty-player version and a backup small version, if we must resume lockdown procedures. Then there’s the unannounced, original big version. We have a cellar full of brochures for that on. They will become collector’s items some day.

It has been fascinating to get to know a new kind of repertoire. Fifty players is actually a bit funny line-up. If you want a bigger brass section, you have to reduce the strings. Thus certain repertoire, say the Brahms symphonies, will become quite impossible. Nobody wants to hear them with only eight first violins. 

So this fifty-player-limit takes much of the standard repertoire out, namely that one-hundred-year period from Beethoven’s passing to Mahler’s death. I think it is great that publishers have been so active. They all have been sending catalogues of their repertoire for ensemble and chamber orchestra. And they’ve also realized that, at this point, twenty minutes is an ideal duration for a piece, in order to put together as good a whole as possible within the shorter time-frame.” 

Regarding the current challenges in programming, Lintu draws interesting parallels between our COVID-19 times and the musical realities in the post-WWI era. 

”Back in 1918, the war had just ended, and the Spanish flu was raging. When you look at Stravinsky’s correspondence from that time, he was really struggling with the fact that there simply were not enough musicians available. 

I’ve always thought that the smaller ensembles of the era were rooted in neoclassicism per se, but actually that seems not to have been the case. And this is quite tragic, really. And now we are back to that repertoire. 

Of course, our musicians are, luckily, alive. But it has been a bit of a challenge to find the kind of repertoire that would provide our four percussionists, harp, piano and tuba something to play too. That has lead to the rediscovery of composers like Hindemith, who realized that there must be music for all kinds of ensembles. And that’s really fantastic.”

In addition to original repertoire for ensemble and chamber orchestra, there are various reductions of the orchestral repertoire.  

”There are some famous ones, a couple of Mahler symphonies and some pieces by Schoenberg. And the publishers are busy making new repertoire available. My colleague (John) Storgårds just emailed me that he has brand new reductions of the three last symphonies of Tchaikovsky.

And there’s a lot of opera reductions. I hadn’t thought about it before, but these scores have been absolutely essential to all those small opera houses in Germany staging their Salomes. And these reductions are very well done.

Obviously, the orchestra apparatus became overblown in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century. An orchestra of that size makes no sense, actually. I mean, did Mahler really need those quintuple winds. Sometimes in concert, I’ve been watching what these people actually do onstage. That’s something you don’t really grasp while you are busy conducting yourself. They just sit there, mostly, and when there’s a fortissimo passage, they toot something, along the rest of the orchestra. It is completely unnecessary. It doesn’t add either volume or mass any more.” 

With the current safety measures applied, there will be live audiences of 390 people in the Helsinki Music Centre auditorium. Even though the limit for indoor audiences is 500 people in Finland at the moment, the floor plan of the auditorium reduces the actual capacity when all aspects of of the safety measures are taken into account. 

In addition to live audiences, the concerts of the FRSO will be webstreamed and broadcasted live on national television by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE).  

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Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal © Petri Anttila

With different reopening schemes introduced in various European countries, there are still many open questions about the shape of the future of the classical music. For Lintu, an eventual return to the old normal seems to be the most likely scenario.

”Everybody is thinking about what will be different. It would seem that not much, actually. If we get rid of the pandemic, nothing will eventually change. For the moment, things are different, out of necessity. If you take a look at the actual plans for the future, there seems to be similar programming and booking procedures underway as always. And I have no problem with that. 

On the other hand if the CIVID -19 situation goes on for longer than a year, the performing structures might collapse. In that case the dilemma of local versus international becomes useless. 

Traveling has always been a part of a musician’s life. Be it Mozart or Furtwängler, they’ve all traveled in a mail coach, or a steamboat, and later, aeroplanes. This is, and always has been, an international business. 

The idea that all this would somehow turn into local is fascinating, but I see no grounds for that, apart from the current circumstances. I find it hard to believe that once things get back to some kind of normal, there would be no traveling. And I’m sure that those who talk about locality now, are among the first ones to fly to Asia and America, when it becomes possible again.  

It is true that those of us with international careers have little to brag about in relation to climate issues. We do fly a lot. But we can recycle and get electric cars. I reserve this right to myself. And, honestly, no musician can’t resist an opportunity to work with a fabulous orchestra in the US or Europe or Asia. At that point, you just don’t decline by saying that ’I’ll be working more locally now’. That’s not what we’ve assigned for.”

 

The current COVID-19 break from conducting and traveling has indeed been the longest one ever for Lintu, including his student days.  

”My last concert was at Boston on the sixth of March. The next one was to be in Paris, but it was cancelled, alongside everything else. With the concerts gone, the first thing I did was sleeping. And I slept a lot. Since last fall, I’ve had this chronic fatigue, due to all these years without full recovery from jet lag. 

Then I got sick. I don’t know if I had the coronavirus or not, but I was really ill. Completely exhausted. It may very well be that the illness was a result of physically halting down, finally. After I was cured form whatever I had, I had lost twenty pounds. Since then, I’ve been going to the gym and taken long walks at the seaside.”

Studying scores was a self-evident part of Lintu’s springtime activities too.

”First I began studying scores for my summer concerts, which were not yet cancelled at this point. After they were gone, I moved on to the scores for the autumn season. Even though the autumn season is now happening, it will not feature the pieces originally programmed either.  

Eventually, I began studying the repertoire I am to conduct two and a half years from now, because those concerts might actually happen. 

Still, the lockdown months provided a good opportunity to figure out what my repertoire actually is. I’ve been going through my bookshelves, score by score. I’ve complied a list of everything for my agent. This is just the kind of thing you never have time to do. 

I’ve also been able to get to know new repertoire, like all the symphonies of Martinů, for example. It may very well be that I never get to do these pieces, but I’ve been educating myself. 

I’ve also listened to a lot of opera with scores, the ones I’ve never heard before. Again, I won’t probably ever conduct them, but finally there has been time to get to know them. And I’ve been reading a lot of chamber music, the quartets by Beethoven and Brahms. This is just the luxury one never has.”

In addition to studying scores, Lintu has been busy with books as well.  

”When the Finnish Book Foundation invited me to pick up the winner for their Finlandia Prize, I joyously accepted. With this six-month break, I have been able read more Finnish literature than ever before. I hope that when the nominations are announced in October I´ve already read most of them.

It took me three months to get everything in balance. It has been very helpful that our autumn season is actually going to happen, so there’s an ending in sight. Now one can imagine being on a summer holiday.”

During the long break, Lintu has still kept scheduling his days, based on an early advise from Jorma Panula, the grand old man of the legendary Sibelius Academy conducting class. 

”Panula insisted that not a single day should go by without some kind of framework. It has been an absolutely essential guideline for my work, but I’ve come to notice that the same applies to holidays. A day may be wasted, of course, but at least it should be wasted in orderly manner. 

3.5.20 Pianist Seong-Jin Cho with the BSO and conductor Hannu Lintu in Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto (Hilary Scott)
Lintu conducting Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Seong-Jin Cho as soloist, just before lockdown on 6 March 2020 © Hilary Scott

Originally, I was supposed to have a sabbatical in the fall of 2021. I had this planned out years ago. In March, with all the concerts gone, I called my agent and cancelled the sabbatical, as I felt that I need to get those lost concerts back. 

Then a month passed, and I called my agent again and said that I do need to take my sabbatical after all. Without clear-cut deadline, the spring wasn’t really a sabbatical. In addition, I’ve not been able to travel anywhere. On my sabbatical proper, I’ll definitely travel somewhere. I don’t know if it will be Lapland or Northern Italy, but somewhere. And I will enjoy the freedom I won’t normally have. So I’ll be having a mini-sabbatical after all.”

 

In January 2022, Lintu will begin his tenure as the Chief Conductor of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet. While the physical distance between the FNOB and the Helsinki Music Centre is small, only a couple of minutes walk through a park, conducting an opera is, in many ways, different from dealing with the symphonic repertoire. 

”It is a whole different process, depending on how one wants to approach it. There are those who let their assistants to take care of things for the first three weeks and only assume from there. They might not even know who’s onstage, they just conduct. And if you work in a big house, there’s a lot of staff holding things together, so you can just focus on conducting the orchestra. 

Then there are those, who are willing to be there with the director from early on, picking up the singers based on a joint vision, and so forth. 

I am so tremendously interested in the whole process, from the sets all the way to the details of direction. I will be popping my nose into everything. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I hope it will be appreciated. I won’t be there in the wardrobe to check the buttons, though. 

It would feel weird to conduct an opera without knowing the whole process. I find it absolutely essential to be aware of the huge amount of work that hundreds of people have done before you walk into the pit at 7 pm, to give the first downbeat. Everybody have done their very best, and at that moment it is trusted in your hands, and you must be able to take it from there.”

Geographically speaking, things will remain quite similar with Lintu’s FNOB assignment, though.   

”I’ll be spending about the same amount of weeks in Helsinki as I have with the FRSO, which is a bit over twenty. That makes two premieres and one reprise, plus a couple of concerts. I don’t have to conduct each opera and I don’t even want to. 

There is the kind repertoire which makes no sense to me, like Donizetti and Bellini. I won’t be conducting their operas, somebody else has to do that. Maybe I could do Norma or Lucia di Lammermoor some day, but I think one lifetime is not enough for those to happen. I’m not sure if I want to conduct everything by Puccini or Verdi, either. 

I’m intending to be there at the rehearsals all the time, even when my assistant is conducting. There is a wonderful musical staff at the FNOB. And if one knows how to operate the apparatus, we will get top results.”

Even though opera provided Lintu the initial inspiration to become a conductor, he admits that only in the last couple of years he has been able to relax with it and get used to working in the pit. 

”Looking back at those first times in the pit, opera can be quite overwhelming, with the orchestra crammed into that small space, the stage high up there and the score down on the podium. 

And the singers can be so different! Ten cellists are not as different from each other as ten singers. They can be polar opposites, in terms of voice and musicianship. One may have a tremendous voice without much musicality, and the other way round. And everything in between, in every combination. 

How one should support each singer, or should you, if the first place? Should you be giving the cues or look to the other way? 

In the end, I’ve done relatively little opera. I went symphonic at some point. When I was studying, the FNOB didn’t have much to offer, and Panula hated opera. Opera was not discussed at all in the class. 

My first operatic project was for my conducting diploma, back in the day you had to do both, the symphony and the opera diplomas. The Marriage of Figaro at Alexander’s Theatre was the first thing I ever did.”

 Still, it may the myriad of challenges that actually makes opera so fascinating for Lintu.

”I like the fact that the conductor is actually relevant at an opera house, because there are so many parameters at play. There are orchestras out there that are perfectly able to support the music themselves, even though they play with a conductor. At the opera, nothing happens until the conductor makes a move. 

Mistakes in the pit can bring the whole thing down. Onstage, you can beat complete  nonsense and nobody notices anything. If you beat a measure too short or too long in the Danse sacrale, the musicians can still manage it. 

It took me some time to figure out to how conduct with the screens. The singers won’t be looking into the pit, they follow the screens dispersed throughout the auditorium. There must be a whole different technique for that. I learned that from Leif (Segerstam).

So, while the very basics remain the same between symphonic and operatic repertoire, different material requires different methods. 

With opera, you also get to know the pieces more thoroughly. There are all those piano rehearsals, and you get to watch the director at work. The whole thing is put together gradually, step by step.  

It is an intriguing process. Eventually you start rehearsing with the orchestra, and you have to start everything all over again. Same thing with the chorus. Each addition to the process creates more chaos. So there’s always development, followed by a surge. When the whole thing finally gets onstage, it falls apart again and once more you have to put it together.

You must have a lot of stamina to put up with all those fallings apart. And some Maestros just shun away from that. That’s why they won’t show up until everything is put together. So they get away with just one shock treatment.”

 

Conducting an orchestra, whether in the pit or onstage, is one of those crafts that can be taught only up to a certain point. A lot of things must be gained through personal experience. 

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Portrait by © Jussi Särkilahti

”The fundamental problem with conducting studies is that one gets to start much later than with, say, violin or piano studies. One does not start conducting at the age of four. Rather, eighteen to twenty two is usually the age when people enter the conducting class. Most students have basically no technique at that point. Panula had the unique gift to see through all that messing around that there’s something of a talent there. 

Studying conducting is difficult for musically advanced students, which they all are, since they’ve been accepted to the class. They start conducting and soon realize that they don’t really know anything. A four-year-old does not yet understand what he can and cannot do, but when you’re twenty, you do realize that. 

So, most of the time is spent in mentally building up that twenty-year-old. Of course, they will learn technique and how to work with an orchestra (luckily we have one), but mostly it is all about support and seeking answer to the seemingly endless questions. 

Nowadays, we start talking abot career really early. If we would have asked Panula about agents, we would have been thrown out of the class. Whereas now it is about the first question a students ask, because they know that young people are being pulled into the business, young talents like Klaus (Mäkelä), Santtu (Rouvali) and Dalia (Stasevska). And for them, that seems to be the way things always happen. 

Within the curriculum, there’s not much time to talk about mental balancing. Interestingly, Panula did try to remind us of these things, in his own grumpy way. ’Practice yoga!’, he used to shout every now and then. 

He wrote a two-and-a-half sheet memorandum, a long one on his standards, about the psychology of an orchestra, traveling and mental preparation. A gesture of goodwill, which we weren’t able to absorb at that point, given that we were still at loss with everything we did. 

He also envisioned an early version of the Panula Academy back then. Each morning would have started with a yoga session, and there would have been all these psychological studies alongside music theory. I’m not really sure, why that never materialized. His current version of the Academy is quite different, however.  

But Panula knew that all these things should have been discussed within the curriculum. Segerstam, with his wisdom, did include mental coaching into his teaching. But that was not a continuous process either. 

In the end, many things had to be figured out by the students themselves. And some things just can’t be taught; how to behave and communicate with an orchestra. You don’t believe these things simply because somebody tells you to. You just have to figure these out. Some of us learn faster, some slower. And some, not at all. 

On my behalf, most of my time with students is spent with me sitting down with each one of them and talk these things through. There are also many practical things to deal with, from taxation to booking flights. These are not discussed within the curriculum, and frankly, they don’t really belong there.”

After the tenures of Panula, Segrstam and Atso Almila, the chair of conducting at the Sibelius Academy of the University of Arts Helsinki has passed on to Sakari Oramo, the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, and Lintu’s predecessor at the helm of the FRSO.   

”He is absolutely right in saying that the conducting class must prepare students for international careers. That’s what it stands for and that’s why it gets the funding. It takes a huge amount of money to train a conductor. The only thing more expensive is the fighter pilot training.

In order to find out who has the capacity to be trained, there is a two-day entrance exam. The more gifted the student, the more there is to teach. It is a cliché, but this really is a profession where you just keep on learning, if only you are open to the idea that there are always new things to learn.”

 

For a conductor, the most fundamental aspect of learning is studying scores. A multi-layered process, be it new material or standard repertoire. 

”The nature of the process depends on whether you have a relationship with the piece or not. With a piece that no-one, especially yourself, knows nothing about, you have to begin quite far off: Who is the composer? What kind of a person he is? What is the context for this piece? 

With living composers, it is really nice to be able to actually discuss these things. Some composers write such clear-cut scores that there is no need to ask anything, really. And with some scores, you soon realize that there’s no point in asking anything. 

The actual physical process begins with shuffling the score like a catalogue and getting a grip on how it is put together. You start with the basics: How many pages there are? How long it will take to study it? What kind of instrumental layout there is? How many movements? With these questions, you think up a strategy, how to begin dismantling it. 

Everything must be analyzed vertically and horizontally: harmonies, articulation, counterpoint. The score must be taken apart into the smallest units, in order to get to the details. It is a very long process. With the most complex scores, you must start at least six months in advance. If it is a Birtwistle piece or Messiaen Turangalîla, it takes a whole year.  

When the details have been worked out, you start distancing yourself, in order to see the whole. Only then you can figure out, how the piece should actually be conducted. At this point, I also begin considering strategies for rehearsing the piece. 

The tempo relationships must be memorized, and if there are no metronome markings in the score, the tempi must be figured out. After these problems are solved, you can start going through the whole thing in tempo and rehearse your technique.”

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The conductor and his scores © Veikko Kähkönen

With familiar pieces the process is a bit different, though.  

”Let’s take a piece like César Franck’s Symphony in D minor. I’ve known the piece for ages, but I’ve never opened the score. The studying process of a piece like this is of course more straightforward.

Even if you knew the score by heart, it is not internalized until you get to conduct it with an orchestra. 

At the beginning of the first rehearsal, there is this huge uncertainty about how it will turn out. But after the rehearsal is finished, I might not need to open the score again until at the next rehearsal. It really clicks with the physical process. 

Panula said that a weekend is enough to learn any piece. And it is true that in an emergency, if there is a cancellation, and you step in, you can learn pretty much anything within a weekend, or a week. 

The difference is that with those scores you have studied properly, it is always so easy to pick them up again. You just open it and everything comes back. This does not happen with those pieces you’ve had to learn really quick. 

Things properly studied stay with you for a lifetime.”

© Jari Kallio

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