Meet the artist: Conductor Nazanin Aghakhani finds home is an interior experience

Sibelius Academy alumn, conductor, composer and many other things: Nazanin Agharkhani is a versatile artist in all senses of the word.

On May 14th she is coming to conduct a unique concert at the Helsinki Music Centre with the young musicians of the Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra.

How does it feel to be back at the Sibelius Academy? 

Of course it feels like circles closing. It’s a big honour because I think that working with the young generation is always fruitful, for us as well, for our generation who try to guide the younger ones. But it also comes with the biggest responsibility. The funny thing has been that although I’m Iranian, I very much identify with the Finnish mentality: with working hard, locking yourself into a room and going for it and focusing on one thing – I really love it.  

You have been a real trail blazer in many ways – for example, you’ve been the first woman to conduct the orchestra in Iran. How do you feel about that role?  

I think the the fruits of this kind of work become visible only later – I don’t think I still understand it by now. It’s basically being very brave at some point and knowing what you really stand for.  Music is one of the highest forces that we human beings have to connect with each other on a metaphysical level. It brings joy, it brings a sense of feeling at home. This is something I would like to be remembered by – music and arts as being a connecting tool, a language that everybody can speak and where we emerge as a big human family. 

Where have you found the courage, the bravery in different stages of your life?  

I had the privilege that from the age of 8 onwards there were a few grown-ups who were supporting my wish to become a conductor. Along the way, especially growing up in Vienna, I was confronted with ideas like “You will not make it.”, “You are a woman.” and “You have an Iranian name.” I would say the secret to my success, something I would pass on to the younger generation, is not to listen to anyone, just to listen to your own heart.

Wars are going on and we just recovered from a epidemic. What is the role of the arts and music in these kinds of situations and in the society? 

I don’t think like “I’m doing this concert or I’m writing this piece to change the world”. I’m doing this because this is where my love is. And maybe this is the key. I don’t think it matters whether you work in an office, drive the bus or make a coffee: I think that we need to get back to the essence of all things, which is love and is unity. I even preach this in concerts. Love is something where you show courage – like in situations where you would save people from danger. Music and the words, this is something  where my heart pours and opens out – it’s something I could give humanity. That’s why I’m doing this. 

You have a versatile cultural background from Iran, Austria and also from the Northern countries. How do you incorporate this in your work? 

In Iran, I was struggling when I was the first lady to conduct a symphony orchestra there. I thought I was coming home in a a way but  they would say “you’re not as Iranian as we thought you would be”. This was a shock for me, being only 30. But in the end this tuned positive because I begun really meditating over the question what is home? Where is my base? I found out that it’s nothing exterior – its interior. It’s where I am, but also where my children are. There are different ideas of home that I created for myself and I don’t usually have difficulties adapting. If you’re a conductor, you have to travel anyway. So at a very young age I bought a suitcase knowing that this is going to be part of my life. Working abroad you often have very little time but you can always get an idea of the new culture. This is what I actually really love about conducting; you get to know new cultures, new people, new art forms. 

What can you tell about the upcoming concert at the Helsinki Music Centre? 

I’m really excited about this concert because I have a huge love for organ. The organ is a magnificent instrument with a big history and I can’t wait to hear the new Music Centre organ in concert. Plus we have really fantastic soloists with really bright careers and futures.

Artturi Rönkä’s new piece makes me as a conductor be very strict with the time. It’s both really challenging and really fun to do. I think the audience has to see it as an event. You should not mistake it with the normal concept of music – it’s a physical event and if you come and witness a new piece like this, I think this can be really, really exciting. 

I have a very emotional attraction to Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony because when I was 10, this was my very first classical CD. There’s a loud entrance in the piece where you can hear the organ in its biggest beauty and it’s my hidden dream as a musician to once be the organ player in this. This piece is so complete although Saint-Saens had never written for organ before.

What kind of things do you have to take into consideration as a conductor when the organ is involved?  

Normally the organ is not placed on stage, so what we have in this concert is quite a modern thing. Previously it has been actually very physical to conduct the organ because you have to be very big in your movements (I’m talking pre-video), so the organ player can see you through the mirror. Back in the days you also had to give the organist a bit of an advance cue because there was a latency, a time gap between the attack and the actual sound. This has changed. With the modern instruments, there’s still always a little delay but one is used to it with working with organ. 

What would be your main message to the future professionals that you’re working with here? 

I would encourage them to believe in themselves, to truly pursue what they love and not be afraid to stand out or being unconventional. The world is colorful and big, and I think we’re again moving towards being really  individual.