Maestro of maestros

Image size 9 Kb Young people in a hurry
Teaching without method
Talent sticks out

An astonishingly large number of young conductors have recently taken their places among the leading names in the Finnish music world: Sakari Oramo, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, and Osmo Vänskä are examples. Besides talent and soaring careers, they have one other factor in common: all have been trained by Professor Jorma Panula, who fully deserves the accolade "maestro of maestros".

Jorma Panula, who trained conductors at the Sibelius Academy until his retirement in 1993, still does the same work in the United States, Russia, Sweden, Italy, Australia and many other parts of the world. The fact that his Finnish students do so well in comparison with the other nationalities that he teaches has caused many observers to wonder why. "Perhaps it's due to something in the Finnish national character," he speculates in response. "There's an uprightness and a right way of seeing things in that character. Finns at their best are pioneers, who have carved fields out of rocky wasteland, with their bare hands if necessary. In the war, Finns were outstanding guerrilla fighters who knew exactly what had to be done. A conductor has to be able to rely on his own resources in much the same way. The job at hand is being done now, right now. One might have different ideas next week, hopefully more profound ones."

Image size 23 Kb In a musical career spanning over half a century, Jorma Panula has conducted famous orchestras in many parts of Europe, America and Asia. In Finland, he conducted theatre and opera orchestras before going on to lead symphonies. He was the Helsinki Symphony's head conductor from 1965 to 1972 and then conducted the Århus Symphony in Denmark for three years. As a professor at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, he taught future conductors of orchestras for all of twenty years, from 1973 until his retirement. His other professorial posts have been with the Academy of Music in Stockholm and the Royal Academy in Denmark. Despite his accomplishments as a conductor, it is as a teacher that he has become best known in world music circles.

Jorma Panula's home is in the scenic suburb of Laajasalo. On a summer afternoon, the petals of the flowers in borders around his lawn flutter in the light breeze blowing in off the sea. This cosmopolitan still speaks Finnish with the strong accent and colourful idiom of his native Ostrobothnia. Whenever the occasion presents itself, he wears the distinctive national costume of the region. Any man so manifestly proud of his roots has to command respect everywhere.

A few grey hairs have appeared on the maestro's temples, but his blue eyes retain a boyish look and a smile comes easily to his lips. This brings to mind the conundrum of why, given that until now the great conductors have almost without exception been elderly gentlemen, so many astonishingly young ones have recently pushed their way into the front ranks.

"Well, stars and stars," Panula replies. "There's a kind of youth boom in progress in everything right now. But it's damned dangerous! Stars can burn out very quickly. I blame agents, who are only after money. It's easy to milk fat commissions from young people, effectively marketed talents. When young boys are offered work with top orchestras the minute they meet an agent, they can easily find themselves on the hook."

"The ideal age for a conductor is closer to eighty," he adds, laughing. "By then they are beginning to know their job. They have the experience and, to use a cliché, prestige. A conductor has to have the demeanour of a leader about him." That said, the maestro takes a deep breath, straightens his back and winks.

Young people in a hurry

One need not be a professional to notice it. I happened to hear Sibelius' Finlandia - a work familiar to every Finn - on the car radio. The tempo was so fast that it horrified me. "The conductor couldn't possibly be a Finn," I thought to myself, but I was wrong: the recording had been made years ago by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who was appointed its head conductor at the age of 27 in 1985.

"You hear things like that because everything lives on in the archives. But it's still happening. At President Martti Ahtisaari's 60th birthday concert this year, there had, of course, to be a rendition of Finlandia, and Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducted it. It was so fast that it must have been all over in less than seven minutes. In my view, it was no longer Finlandia at all, but 'Finlandietta'." No doubt, Saraste has heard his mentor's judgement .

"The choice of tempo tells a lot about a conductor. Some of them go in the opposite direction to those who rush it. I once heard Leonard Bernstein conducting Mahler and it was impossibly slow going - as though the conductor was incapable of dragging the orchestra after him. Maybe Bernstein wasn't in top form just then," recalls Panula, whose own interpretations of symphonies by Mahler and Bruckner have been much lauded by critics.

Jorma Panula likes all good music irrespective of genre. He has composed operas and musicals, adapted folk music and even written a few pop songs. "Anyone who talks about dance music must be able to dance, otherwise the waltzes and tangos will be too fast. Take Tchaikovsky's waltzes, for example. They were composed in an era when women wore long dresses and officers had heavy boots and epaulettes weighing kilogrammes on each shoulder. They danced in large ballrooms and the tempo had to be slow. That should always be borne in mind when one is trying to imagine what tempo the composer would have preferred. At the other end of the scale is the French musette waltz, which is a great deal faster. A restaurant musician often has a better grasp of this matter than the conductor of a symphony orchestra."

Is it an advantage for a conductor to be a composer as well, like Esa-Pekka Salonen, for example.

"Yes, and there are many others," replies Panula. "we have Leif Segerstam in Finland, and foreign examples include Mahler, Bernstein and Richard Strauss. A conductor who also composes learns to understand the right balance between the instruments in an orchestra. That is something always in a composer's mind - and that should always be in a conductor's as well. It is the best way for an orchestra to find exactly the sound that the composer was aiming for. Composing and adapting music teach a conductor an awful lot."

Teaching without method

You have been training conductors for a quarter of a century. Has your method changed over the years?
"I never had any method to begin with. Everyone is an individual when he begins learning. It takes a while to figure out which way the student is headed. I wouldn't want anyone to be able to say at the end of it all: 'O, yes, that's Panula's training!' No way! Let everyone make music his own way; technique is only an aid to that end. A conductor must have the instruments to deal with any situation that arises. If one doesn't work, then try another. Everyone has his own solution and must look for it. It's a longer way to go, but worth it. You have to have the courage to jump into the water before you learn to swim. I don't throw in the life-belt until someone is really drowning."

The latest Panula protégé to become a sensation in the music world is young Sakari Ornamo, whom the Birmingham Orchestra itself chose as Sir Simon Rattle's successor.

"I'm not at all surprised," his old teacher says. "Sakari is a fine musician, as he showed when he was concert master with the Radio Symphony Orchestra. He is an open, honest and bright person. Traits like that certainly show. The foundation for everything is ability, of course. Sakari Oramo has the additional advantage of genuine good behaviour. One senses it; there are so many well-bred pretentious persons. Conductors can no longer behave like industrial tycoons in the old days. Paul Kletski, swearing in his booming voice, could scare musicians half to death: 'What the hell! If I don't start hearing a good sound from you, I'll soon be calling your widow!'. The likes of that isn't acceptable any longer. A conductor working with an orchestra has to be determined in a likeable way. Fawning achieves nothing, although some try it. The best result comes from teamwork, but in a framework where there is no doubt as to who determines the tempo. Oramo has the natural, self-evident authority that he needs for his job."

Orchestras often appoint their conductors for long contract periods. This is said to be because a conductor gets an orchestra to play his way, that he brings his own sound.

"There's a lot to that," says Panula. "But a really good - or for that matter a really bad - orchestra plays quite differently under the baton of a guest conductor. In the past, top orchestras had their own clearly recognisable sound - the Cleveland is a good example - that was a kind of trade mark. It was the same with the Berlin Philharmonic for a long time. No one could change it; the Karajan sound - dammit! - hung on. It was as unstoppable as a tank. Only when Claudio Abbado took over did the orchestra open up a bit.

"It was a mistake to look only for the orchestra's distinctive character. What they should have been looking for was the composer's sound. Esa-Pekka Salonen has told me that he once tried to do Nielsen with the Berliners - and never tried it again. It was hopeless: the orchestra just played Karajan. Now it is gradually dawning on them that the music is more important than the orchestra."

Talent sticks out

"Music" and "natural musician" crop up a lot in your speech. Can one see from a student right away that he is likely to become a good conductor?

"It only takes a few minutes," he replies. "Some have the knack, a musician's feeling for his task. They listen and hear what the orchestra will probably sound like when it is stirred up. The conductor has to be a 'fiddler' himself, able to play and with a good knowledge of all the knacks and rules of playing. A string instrument is probably the best starting point, but someone who plays a wind instrument can also become a good conductor. Salonen plays the French horn and Vänskä the clarinette, but most of them, beginning with Saraste, have played wind instruments.

Panula is confident that his young stars still have their best years ahead of them.

"It's only the beginning for them," he says. "People grow and deepen as they get older. Youth is admired and even undeservedly, but that is only commercialism. The most recent example is Mikko Franck, who is only 21 and advancing in his career at breakneck speed. In fact, I feel partly to blame for having admitted such a young person to the academy. Although he was under age and I tried to stop him, Mikko signed a contract with an agent in London. I suppose his parents were somehow involved, Now he is getting the kinds of fees that a small orchestra couldn't afford. Now where can he practise? The boy does nearly all of his pieces straight away with large audiences, the Israel Philharmonic and Amsterdam . that can easily lead to burn out."

Are there composers whose works mercilessly test the skills and talent of a conductor - young or old?

"There certainly are," says Panula. "Mozart for example. His music is the most difficult of all, because it is so simple. It may seem easy, but it contains pitfalls that one cannot avoid without thinking things right through. It takes an enormous amount of concentration."

The following anecdote about Mozart is claimed to be true. A young student asked the master how the symphonies had been composed. "Learn your counterpoint first," Mozart replied, "You're still so young." The student retorted: "Young! But you were composing symphonies at 7!" - "Yes, but I wasn't asking how."

Young talented conductors can learn how from Jorma Panula, but they must themselves know what to do. The charisma that is essential for them cannot be learned from even a good conductor.

Biography of Jorma Panula