Photo: Katja Tähjä
“It may sound like a cliché, but music is a global language and through classical music people from various countries and backgrounds can come together like best friends,” says Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Esa-Pekka Salonen is demolishing walls

The Sibelius Academy celebrates Finland’s centenary by forming a joint symphony orchestra with the Juilliard School. The orchestra is conducted by maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen, an alumnus of the Sibelius Academy and a regular guest at the Juilliard School.

Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen is pleased to be able to participate in Finland’s centenary festivities with this joint symphony orchestra project.

“We live in times of growing isolationism. And for a small country like Finland, active international cooperation in all fields is of utmost importance. This joint project with a famous American institution is, both symbolically and practically, exactly the right thing to do. It may sound like a cliché, but it shows that music is a global language and that through classical music people from various countries and backgrounds can come and work together like best friends.”

Juilliard has collaborated with the Sibelius Academy before and Esa-Pekka Salonen has worked with young musicians from both institutions. However, this is the first time he will be working with this kind of joint orchestra. Of the approximately 80 young musicians, half will come from the Sibelius Academy and half from Juilliard. They will rehearse in Helsinki and then tour in Helsinki, Stockholm and New York City.

“The fun in this project is bringing together two orchestras that share many similarities but also have their own respective backgrounds.”

The competition is merciless

It is extremely difficult to get into both institutions. Because of its international fame it is probably even more difficult to get into Juilliard.

“The performing skills of students in both academies are at a very high level. Juilliard students form a genuinely international group, many of Asian origin. At the Sibelius Academy, Finns make up the majority, although it too has many students from abroad. In New York, where all performing arts are located under the same roof, the musicians communicate more with the drama and dance students. In Helsinki, they mostly socialize among themselves. In this respect, I believe that at Juilliard there is more cross-pollination between the arts.”

Does a conductor need a special or gentle approach when working with student orchestras?

“Because of the exceptional technical skills of these young musicians, you can demand of them almost the same as of older professionals. The biggest difference is the lack of orchestral identity and tradition that professional orchestras have: the culture, the approach, the repertoire.”

This gives the conductor an opportunity to start with a clean slate.

“You don’t have to fight against any conventions, which can be useful when there is not enough rehearsal time. For the conductor, it is nice to be able to work without such ballast. You can start fresh because there are no positions to be held and defended. And that should be always the case when working with art.”

“It may sound like a cliché, but music is a global language and through classical music people from various countries and backgrounds can come together like best friends,” says Esa-Pekka Salonen.

A flexible alma mater

Salonen is an alumnus of the Sibelius Academy. He praises his brilliant teachers and the flexibility and willingness of his alma mater to tailor the programme to suit his skills. It was possible because in those days it was a relatively small private institution.

“For instance, the advanced counterpoint class held Saturday mornings by Risto Väisänen had only two students, me and the composer Magnus Lindberg. In practice, for many years we just played four hand arrangements of western compositions from A to Z.”

Salonen recalls great fun at an old upright piano. Two played and one was the conductor.

“Actually, we once managed to push the piano over when playing and singing Wagner’s Lohengrin. This totally un-academic class was pivotal for us both because there we learned what music is. We could write proper fugues if needed.”

A Finnish-American programme

The programme of the joint symphony orchestra will feature both American and Finnish music: Lemminkäinen Suite Op. 22 by Jean Sibelius and Mania by Salonen himself.

“Mania is a mini concerto, where a young Finnish-Dutch cellist, Jonathan Roozeman, is the soloist. I am really interested to hear him play it.”

Radical Light is a composition by Salonen’s friend Steven Stucky, an American composer and former Juilliard faculty member, who died tragically last year.

“Steven was one of the most important American composers. He was the composer-in-residence of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the whole period I conducted there. I commissioned Radical Light from him to be performed together with Sibelius’ 7th Symphony, which was an important work for him. He also had a very warm relationship with Finland and Finnish composers.”

Salonen and the next generation
Sat Aug 26, 7pm
Helsinki Music Centre, Concert Hall

Text: Jussi-Pekka Aukia. This article has originally been published in IssueX magazine.