He conducted with the knitting needles of his mom at the age of 9, started his career as a piano player and continued as a violinist. Finally, he turned out to be a star-conductor. Jukka-Pekka Saraste told us what is common in Hungary and Finland, how you can become a really good musician and that contemporary music can be very popular as well. Interview.
You grabbed the knitting needles of your mom and started conducting at the age of 9. Very early start.
Yes, but I did not only conduct the youth orchestra, but I was also rehearsing them. The thing that you can demand and actually make your will through conducting was a very valuable experience for me. I started with playing the piano and it was like a miniature orchestra for me. You can experiment many things while playing it. Later on I realized that with a violin you can play together with an orchestra and then came conducting.
If you could mention three qualities a musician should possess to be a really good one what would they be?
The most important thing is to have your own musical will. You have to be determined to do things in a true way. There’s a secret in every piece of music and you cannot copy - just be independent! You have to have the courage to work a lot and have a goal to go to somewhere with your capacity and talent. You have to have all the impulses and inspirations not only from music but generally be interested in everything related to performing.
If you are a member of a symphonic orchestra you might have independent thoughts you cannot use because the conductor has another idea in mind.
Yes, but to be an orchestra musician is another thing. Then you have the ability to drive as a fast a Formula car and you have to adjust.
You were conducting a full Sibelius-program in December in Copenhagen and you are also taking a Sibelius-symphony to Budapest soon. He must have a special place in your heart.
Yes, and I also conducted Sibelius in Cologne before. These symphonies – number 4, 5 and 2 – are the symphonies that are performed the most by Sibelius. Number 2 was the first symphony I conducted by him. At that time I was quite young, like 22 years old. I was totally excited about it and later I conducted it a lot and it stayed in my memory. Now I am coming back to it again and find it very-very fresh and a very important symphony of Sibelius, because in that one he developed his musical style. From being connected to the late Romantic Russian influence he opened up to the world. There are less Slavic influence in it than there is in the previous works.
It’s rather interesting that Sibelius did not only hear music but he could also see it: he attached colors to the sound. D-major - the 2nd symphony for example - was yellow for him. Do you agree with this idea?
I don’t connect any color to the 2nd symphony, but I have one for the 6th. I feel it’s blue, because it communicates with the coolness of water.
There’s been a video spreading on the internet with more than a thousand Finnish people singing and celebrating Sibelius. Is he still a real national hero?
For many different reasons he was like Chopin for the Polish. Finland once belonged to Sweden and then to Russia. Together with other artists, Sibelius was quite an important contributor to the identity movement of the Finns. One of his early works, Finlandia is one of the cornerstones of this movement. Many people know him only because of these early works which is OK, but in Central Europe I am trying to play his the later works as well. It is important not to consider him only as a national hero, because he is also a very universal composer. That’s why I took the risk to play the 4th symphony in Cologne as to celebrate Sibelius’s 150th anniversary and I was very pleased that it was a success.
The other 2 pieces you are going to play together with the Budapest Festival Orchestra is Feria by Lindberg and Dvorak’s violin concerto. How do you relate to them?
I am very happy to talk about Feria, because it was dedicated to me. Everybody thinks that contemporary music is difficult to sell, but in the very first season after its birth I conducted Feria nineteen times with six or seven different orchestras. This shows that orchestras are interested in contemporary pieces and Feria is one of the most successful orchestral pieces ever played in Finland. I mean after Sibelius’s symphonies and other works.
Why is it so successful?
It’s very easy for the people to understand. Musically it’s very difficult, but it has an energy that goes through to the audience immediately. It communicates and that’s the main point in it.
And what about the Dvorak violin concerto?
I have a memory Christian Tetzlaff and me performing this violin concerto many-many years ago. The way he plays it is really fantastic and gives a lot of importance to that concerto.
Did you have a special atmosphere in mind when putting together this program?
It is a very easy but very inspiring process to put these three things together. And I am very happy with it, because it shows many directions of music that I am familiar with. They are very close and important to me.
What’s the strongest characteristic of Finnish music?
Melancholy combined with intensity and an inner strength.
What are your expectations of the Budapest Festival Orchestra?
This is one of the most inspiring things for me to come to Budapest because last time I had a very good time there.
We Hungarians love referring to the Hungarian-Finnish friendship because of our language roots. Are you familiar with this phenomenon?
My father was very aware of this because he was a Finnish language teacher and always talked a lot about the similarities of these two languages. When I was in Hungary for the first time I could feel this closeness of the language by hearing, though I did not understand it. The similarities are obvious. I don’t know about the nature of people but both Finnish and Hungarian people are in the middle of other language groups by themselves and that probably makes them kind of independent.
Is there anything you would like to see in Budapest?
In Budapest I enjoyed walking and seeing the beautiful buildings and the boulevards. I am looking forward to doing that again.
How do you relate to this travelling way of life?
Of course it is a lot. I have been travelling in the last 6 weeks almost non-stop, but I enjoy music-making so much that it is not tiring. Get to know an orchestra is inspiring. You always have to be interested in the particular quality of an orchestra. That’s the key. It is a bidirectional energy that goes from the orchestra to the conductor and then backwards.
And you also have to be a psychologist, don’t you?
Yes, that’s also important.