'Most of the orchestras in the world can play without a conductor'


Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu played his first concert with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra last year. Now he is back, as its principal guest conductor

ONE OF THE fascinations of weekly orchestral concerts is how quickly and thoroughly things can change. Hannu Lintu’s first concert with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in January last year was an occasion of major transformation. As I wrote at the time, “the musicians played out of their skins” and “there was an almost startling immediacy, fullness and power to the orchestral sound, a confidence, even a swagger to the playing”.

Within a few months, Lintu had a call from RTÉ. The contact was not just to set up a return gig. With just one concert in the bag – which he had enjoyed enormously – he was offered the post of principal guest conductor, and he makes his debut in that role on Friday.

Lintu, of course, comes from the most talked-about lineage in the world of conducting today. He was born in the Finnish town of Rauma in 1967. He went to the local music school, and says he was fortunate to fall in with a small group of passionate students, all of whom have gone on to make music their career.

He caught the conducting bug at the age of nine, when he was taken to Verdi’s Don Carlosat the Savonlinna Opera Festival. He could see the conductor, Leif Segerstam, from his seat, and remember wondering, “how on earth can that man keep all that together?”

So it was probably inevitable that, as a prospective conductor, he would move to the conservatory in Turku, and finally end up in Jorma Panula’s conducting class at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. Panula is the man who turned the Sibelius Academy into a powerhouse for training conductors. He’s famous for making sure his students should have an actual orchestra (of fellow students) to conduct twice a week. But for Lintu, that wasn’t what set him apart.

“His special talent was that he always knew at an audition which candidates were going to become conductors. No matter what kind of strange things he saw, he could see the will. And that was enough. If you just pick up the right kind of students, they will become conductors.”

Lintu acknowledges that most orchestras nowadays could play quite well together without the involvement of a conductor. “Conducting technique is not as detailed as piano technique or violin technique, where you really have to know where you put your finger, and what you do after that. Conducting is a more general thing. It’s more like creating atmosphere. But it’s more demanding, because you have to create this sound. You have 100 people contributing to that sound, and it is your duty to create it. Because most of the orchestras in the world can play together without any conductor. You are there to help them play better musically, and help them make a sound that is more coherent, that makes more sense from the composer’s point of view.”

Relationships between orchestras and conductors have an element of cat and dog tension about them. Players like to boast about assessing conductors in the few seconds it takes to walk onstage to the podium at the first rehearsal.

“Isn’t that always what happens when a new guy comes to an office or wherever?” asks Lintu. “It takes 10 seconds, and most of them think they know that’s a good guy or that’s a bad guy, he’s an idiot, or he’s nice. Of course it happens in the orchestra, as well. On the other hand, the conductor can see, too. I conduct an orchestra for five minutes and know exactly what kind of orchestra they are. I even usually know what kind of chief conductor they have. No matter if I’ve seen the conductor or not.”

The key things, he says, are: “First of all it’s the reaction to the beat. Then there is the reaction to the printed music. How they react to the variation of dynamics, different kinds of accents, crescendi, diminuendi . . . Do they really know, balance-wise, what is important, what is not? What kind of sound do they produce? All these kind of things a conductor notices in five minutes.”

The challenge of the job is to find ways to make the orchestra move away from the way it normally does things. At the very highest level, with orchestras steeped in strong traditions, he says, “you can make changes by changing the tempo. They have their own ways of phrasing and of balancing, and usually they have their own ways of characterising things. But what they can’t control is the tempo. If you change the tempo, they have to change the character.”

At a more basic level, “we all create our own kind of sound, just by appearing there. People look at us, and they change their sound. It’s eyes, it’s the facial expression. And it’s how you move your hands. Although we don’t have physical contact with the instrument, we have to have a physical contact with the music. The music is in our hands. The way we carry the music is between the beats. The music is between the beats. And of course you can also change the sound by rehearsing. You can try to explain verbally what kind of sound you want.”

That, of course, is the option players seem to like the least. They much prefer playing to having to sit and listen to somebody telling them what to do.

I met up with Lintu in Lugano, where he was working with the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana. He was taking an animated, interventionist rehearsal with the wind, brass and percussion players on Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. “I had a divided rehearsal, strings in the morning, winds and brass in the afternoon, so that we could really, properly read the piece, and get used to the harmonies, so that they know what is important and what is not. That is always the problem with Sibelius abroad. It’s so full of stuff, vertically, that it’s sometimes almost impossible for orchestras to know which one of those layers is really important. For me, they are all important. I always try to balance so that I can somehow hear everything.

“We Finns tend to be technical. I don’t mean so much conducting technique as rehearsal technique. We had orchestra rehearsals twice a week at the academy. And especially when Mr Panula was the professor, he wanted us to rehearse, rehearse and rehearse. We had to do something. He wasn’t teaching. He was just sitting there, watching, listening.” Studying under Panula was a kind of immersion. “We spent lots of time together, even outside the lessons. We went to restaurants. We ate well. We drank well. We discussed politics, literature, poetry. He wanted us to discuss and be also something else than musicians – fully aware human beings.

“And he never wanted to shape our technique. He wanted us to be ourselves. And he wanted us to remain friends. It’s important that a conductor has conductor friends. Our problems are so weird sometimes, that even other musicians, no matter how talented, don’t understand them. A colleague immediately understands. Wherever I am, I can always call any other Finnish conductor and ask advice. His own speciality as a conductor was the energy, the drive of the music. It was always going somewhere. It never stopped. But you still never had the feeling of pressure. I think this is what we all got from him, somehow.

“I just happened to be lucky. I just happened to be part of that Finnish music school system.”

Hannu Lintu conducts the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Sibelius, Walton and Nielsen at the National Concert Hall tomorrow