Fighting Back From What Life Throws At You And Inspiring Others: Jim Pritchard Interviews The Soprano Elisabeth Meister
One of the highlights of the recent concert performance of Die Walküre for the Saffron Opera Group was Elisabeth Meister’s wonderful Sieglinde. Peter Reed in Opera magazine described how ‘gathering depth and brilliance’ she ‘built towards an orchestra-surfing “O hehrstes Wunder!” of pulverizing grandeur’. On this site I said she just ‘got better and better’ and how ‘Meister is an intelligent singer who knows how to project her voice, and she achieved extraordinary heights of passion in Act III without pushing the voice beyond its limits.’ (For full review click here.) I also mentioned how Elisabeth was – with this performance – returning to singing after something of a hiatus to her singing career, which was set to have a meteoric rise after leaving the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. Elisabeth has a remarkable – and inspirational – story to tell which involves losing and regaining her singing voice.
There is now much more to this undoubtedly ‘intelligent singer’ than her voice, including how she now sings under the name Elisabeth Meister. She describes it on her Meister Music website (click here): ‘I was born in 1975 in Bristol, and christened Elizabeth Clare Kitchen. At eight years old, my paternal grandpa died, and we suddenly uncovered a 47-year-old secret: my dad had been adopted in the 1930s, and his biological father’s surname was Franklin. We changed our family name to Franklin-Kitchen, in his honour. Years later, on my mum’s side of the family, my grandma passed away. She had always been a huge lover of classical music, and would come to my concerts whenever she was able. My operatic career began to take an upward turn, right at the time grandma sadly died. Her name was Elisabeth Meister.’ This was the first thing we talked about when we recently met.
EM: It was 2008 when I adopted the name. Elizabeth Franklin-Kitchen had always seemed a bit clunky, taking up too much space in concert programmes for starters! I had thought about taking my mother’s maiden name, which was Angel: my repertoire at the time largely resided at the lighter end of Mozart and Puccini, so Angel would have suited me quite well, but from 2008 I began exploring the heavier repertoire of Strauss and Wagner, so I decided that grandma’s name would suit me much better, and it also meant I could carry her memory around with me wherever I went. Taking on the European spelling of Elisabeth also gave it a timeless quality – you might not be able to tell which decade I was born just my looking at my name and, as I age, I think I prefer it that way!
JP: Let’s look back and please tell me about your background in music and how you began singing.
EM: I started singing in a local church choir when I was about 7 or 8 – basically as soon as I could read music well enough to follow along. My dad was the organist at the church. It wasn’t long before I was regularly pestering him to let me sing a solo at communion! After a few years I also took up playing the trumpet and double bass. Soon, music was all I cared about. I wasn’t particularly gifted academically, and nor was I all that popular at school. In fact, I was bullied pretty badly – perhaps on account of having ginger hair and being overweight, I’ll never know – so I retreated more and more to the music department. It wasn’t long before I was spending every evening taking part in a different musical activity: brass band, wind band, choir, orchestra – I loved it, and I didn’t even care that my school work suffered enormously as a result (I came away with a small handful of useful GCSEs and a couple of A levels).
JP: How did you eventually settle on singing as a possible career?
EM: When I was 17 I moved with my family up to Nottingham. After a few months I joined the parish church choir at St Mary’s, High Pavement. Their director of music, John Keys, encouraged me to start having singing lessons. I was recommended to Ruth Holton, based in South London. I was on the dole at the time, receiving something like £70 a fortnight, so having lessons in London seemed a crazy luxury. But Ruth was so important to me, that I would spend my entire allowance taking the National Express from Nottingham to London, then the number 2 bus from Baker Street to West Norwood, and doing it all in reverse after just an hour’s lesson. Sometimes, I simply couldn’t afford to pay for the lessons, so would offer to do Ruth’s ironing in lieu of payment!
After a couple of years, in the mid-90s, my family decided to relocate to London, and it was at this point that both Ruth and John strongly encouraged me to apply to music college. I did so and, after a somewhat clunky start which, for the sake of brevity, I won’t go into here, I enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music. However, a year or so later the clunkiness returned: I had recently become engaged, but the relationship hadn’t worked out. I became clinically depressed, and my mental health suffered to the point where I was no longer able to continue my studies. I ended up leaving the RAM halfway through my second year.
JP: What did you do then?
EM: I was still doing some choral singing whilst working ‘out in the real world’, doing reception work, secretarial things, bar work, whatever came along. After a while, I had garnered a pretty good reputation within the BBC Singers, as well as a number of other professional choruses. In 2002, I decided to have another go at a solo career and, after a brief, informal consultation with Robin Bowman (the then head of vocal studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama), I successfully applied for a place on their postgraduate programme. During that year, in 2003, I came joint second in the Kathleen Ferrier Singing Competition and that made me really think there was a good chance of success as a soloist. In 2004 I went from the Guildhall to join the chorus at Glyndebourne, and later with English Touring Opera, where I also covered Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda and Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte.
During that tour with ETO I had the amazing opportunity to perform Fiordiligi three times. This was my first ever operatic role on stage, and I can’t tell you how exciting it was. I had just 24 hours to get myself ready for it, and I’ll never forget the kindness of my incredible colleagues, especially my long-time buddy Rachel Nicholls, playing my sister Dorabella, who pushed me around the stage and directed me towards the right doors at the right time. I knew at once that this was who I was – I was born for the stage, and only just now did I really realise it. But I was already 30 by this point, so further training and support were going to be difficult to come by.
In 2005 I travelled to Germany to audition for a few houses, though I had been warned they might try and put me in a more dramatic Fach. Actually, one person I sang for there said ‘You think you are a lyric soprano but really you are soubrette and, frankly, with your build you will not get work as a soubrette.’ So, that was disappointing.
I started going through a bit of a desperate time, financially. I had very little work on, but I was determined not to give up and go back to office work. I ended up losing my flat, along with all my possessions. I simply couldn’t afford to live there anymore. I basically became homeless: occasionally sleeping at friends’ homes, on my parents’ sofa, sometimes in my car. After a year or so of living like this, I got a bit of a break, and was offered a year’s worth of work as a chorister with WNO. They helped me to relocate to Cardiff and, my gosh, I can’t tell you how amazing it was to have a place I could call home again.
It was while I was there that the tenor Dennis O’Neill spotted me. After a successful audition with him in 2008, I went to study for a year at his Cardiff International Academy for Voice, assisted financially by the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Susan Chilcott Scholarship, for which I will be eternally grateful. CIAV was where I started to learn my craft: it was all very well being able to sing endless top Cs at 100 decibels, but what I needed to learn was finesse, and stagecraft, both of which were offered in spades on Dennis’s programme. At the end of that year I auditioned for the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at Covent Garden and again was successful. This was an incredible moment. I was one of over 140 sopranos who had auditioned for just one place on this most prestigious of programmes. Even now, years after leaving the programme, I find it mind-boggling to have been granted such a place. After all, I still didn’t have much repertoire; all I had ever sung publicly was Fiordiligi and that was it. I was a very left field person to take on.
JP: What was your voice like at the time?
EM: I guess I would describe it as a ‘loud lyric’! I hadn’t really considered what Fach I was. In fact, my audition repertoire consisted of a bizarre range of roles, which included Musetta, Countess, Leonora (La forza del destino) and Turandot! At Covent Garden the first roles I covered were Octavian, then the Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen, followed by Aida, all terrific roles which I just soaked up. It was a great time for learning what I was capable of, and where my boundaries were.
JP: Tell me more about the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme.
EM: The Programme runs for two years and I was on it from 2009 to 2011. People audition from all around the world for up to five places each year. The idea is that you are salaried members of the music staff; you cover big roles, sing smaller ones on stage and in between there are recital and concert opportunities. So you get that experience of being on stage with the biggest-named artists and conductors in the world, along with one of the greatest orchestras. The very fact to be in the same room as Soile Isokoski, Eva-Maria Westbroek or Simon O’Neill – all of whom were really supportive of me during my time there – really ups your game, they’re such inspiring artists. After you finish the programme you have access to the practice facilities at the Royal Opera House, on a first-come-first-served basis. They also offer you up to 50 hours of coaching a year. You can have language coaching, music coaching or whatever you need. You can also have conversation classes: when I worked in South America in 2011/12 I took Spanish lessons for several weeks before I travelled.
JP: What were the highlights of your time there?
EM: One of the biggest things that happened to me is that I went on as Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen in 2010. I had only been on the programme for six months, and I still had very little solo experience at that point, with that Fiordiligi in 2005 and the minor role of Pale Lady in The Gambler at Covent Garden in 2010. It was extraordinary to be able to work with Sir Charles Mackerras – I still don’t know how I got through it. It was sung in English, though Sir Charles didn’t care too much for the translation we were using. Each night he would come to my dressing room and suggest a change of words here and there – I don’t think I ever sang the same set of words two nights running. It was amazing to sing that for a whole run.
One of the most fun roles I covered was Anna Nicole. I had already been involved in the creative process of this new creation before joining the Programme, singing the title role during a number of workshops, so it was really great to continue my involvement during my time as a Jette Parker Young Artist.
JP: You have mentioned some names who have been important to your development as a singer. Are there others who have been a particular influence?
EM: At Covent Garden there were a number of people and the head of music, David Syrus, continues to inspire me. He is incredibly humble and will say ‘I didn’t do anything’ and ‘It’s a pleasure for me to accompany you’. I must say he makes you sing really well. Susanna Stranders is also a JPYA alumna, and she is absolutely incredible to work with – she doesn’t miss a thing, and really draws out the best in you. Outside of the music staff, one of my greatest influences was the soprano Elizabeth Connell. I studied under her right up to her passing away in 2012. It was a great honour to invoke her memory at her memorial concert later that year, singing the entry aria of Turandot, one of her signature roles.
JP: What happened after you left the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme?
EM: My first role after leaving the Programme was Aida for the Teatro Municipal de Santiago de Chile, in October/November 2011. That was an absolutely wonderful experience. I made some really great friends there, many of whom I’m still in touch with today. The day after my last performance I got the morning flight up from Chile to Chicago to cover Ariadne and sing First Lady in Die Zauberflöte for the Lyric Opera. I’ve never mastered the art of sleeping on planes no matter how long the journey, so by the time I got to Chicago that same morning I was in rehearsal after 30 hours with no sleep.
In that 2011/12 season I returned to Santiago to sing Lucrezia Borgia. This was a very short notice contract, to replace an ailing soprano, so I had just a few short weeks to learn this incredible role. I had never sung any bel canto repertoire before, and it was amazing to see how well my voice responded to Donizetti’s beautiful lines. I came back home for just two weeks before returning to Chile for a third time, this time to sing Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. Again, after the final performance, there was a rush to catch a plane, this time to return to the UK, where I was taking part in the 2012 Ring cycle at Covent Garden. After another sleepless 17-hour flight, landing at 7.30am, I had just enough time to get home, dump my luggage, and have a shower, before getting myself to ROH for the afternoon rehearsal: the famous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ scene. I was singing Helmwige and, with Tony Pappano in the room, there was nowhere to hide my lack of sleep and jetlag! I loved my time in the Ring – it’s an incredibly special thing to be a part of, wherever you’re doing it, but at Covent Garden, it was something else. I was also covering Sieglinde, as well as singing Third Norn in Götterdämmerung, so it was great to really sink into Wagner’s extraordinary world.
JP: Then unfortunately matters took a turn for the worse for you, so what happened?
EM: It was the autumn of 2012 and I began to notice that something strange was happening, vocally. I was beginning to find singing somewhat more effortful than usual but, since I’d been travelling quite a bit lately, I wasn’t unduly surprised at the time. During 2013, though, I noticed a steady decline. After performing in Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, I found it hard to regain some of the legato quality in my voice. I constantly felt like I was fighting off a cold or something. For the rest of 2013 I didn’t have a huge amount of work on – apart from a Lucrezia Borgia in Brussels – I was mostly covering at Covent Garden – First Lady, Turandot, Queen Elizabeth I in Gloriana and a concert performance in Cambridge of Peter Grimes in December. By the beginning of 2014 I was really in trouble. However I was singing Lady Macbeth at Scottish Opera before going to sing Turandot in Bilbao. I was really concerned about what was going on. I started withdrawing from engagements. I certainly felt unable to do any auditions and at the same time things were becoming increasingly rocky with my agent, so we parted company.
To cut a long story short, over the next couple of years, I was treated for all manner of ailments, from acid reflux to endocrine issues, but nothing seemed to work. Over the course of those two years, I lost every ounce of work that I had in the diary and, by the end of 2015, I could barely sing at all. I decided that I would have to call it a day, at least temporarily, as the more I stressed about my voice, the harder it became to produce anything much above a squeak!
I decided to start applying for regular, 9-5 jobs, though having not worked outside of singing for so many years, I found it impossible to find anything at all. After several months of looking, I ended up working in a hospital theatre as a healthcare assistant. My job was to provide the scrub nurse and surgeon with whatever assistance they needed during surgery, record all details of the surgery, and to clean the floors and operating table and generally clear away the bits and pieces the patient ‘no longer needed’! It was an absolutely grotesque job. I’m fairly squeamish at the best of times, and having to stand and watch knee and hip replacement surgeries, and various endoscopic procedures was rather more than I could handle. I managed just five months there before my mental health once more began to suffer, and so I decided to quit.
I had developed a very painful back during my time at the hospital, even though I had received extensive training on manual handling. I decided to go and see an osteopath. This turned out to be one of the most amazing decisions I’ve ever made. It was this osteopath who finally unlocked what had happened to my voice.
JP: Tell me more.
EM: So I had gone to see this amazing guy in Hove called Rex Brangwyn, who is both a psychologist and an osteopath. I had met him through my partner, as they had both recently completed their MSc in Behavioural Psychology.
Although I had gone to see him for back pain, I had also explained about my voice loss. He felt my throat and neck, and asked if I had ever been struck in the throat with anything! I searched my memory, and suddenly remembered that a few years before I had been playing Frisbee with some friends and – yes! – I had indeed been hit in the throat with it! You’d think I would remember such an event, but the brain is an extraordinary thing and I had completely forgotten all about it!
This was such a big deal to me – I thought I had shut the door on my singing career, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to build up my hopes again, only to have them dashed. However, I decided to at least give it another go, so I booked appointments with Ed Blake (a laryngeal physiotherapist) at his practice on Harley Street, and Nick Gibbins at the Voice Clinic at Lewisham Hospital. They were both instantly in agreement with Rex’s diagnosis. They concurred that the trauma to my larynx had caused it to twist round, but it had done so incredibly slowly over the course of a few years, that it would have been impossible to spot at the beginning of my troubles. By the time they diagnosed me, the twist had reached a whopping 30 degrees!
With the huge generosity of Help Musicians UK, in early 2016 I embarked of six months of physiotherapy with both Ed and Rex, and started voice lessons with the amazing Linda Hutchinson. In March 2016, I was able to sing the solos in a performance of Elijah and, although it appeared my performance was good enough for the choir and conductor, I felt it was well below par. But I’m delighted with how my performance in Die Walküre the following October had gone.
JP: So that wonderful Sieglinde I heard was something of a comeback?
EM: Yes indeed. It’s amazing to now know that I will be able to return to a career in singing. I’m starting pretty gently (Sieglinde notwithstanding!), with a return to choral singing for a while. I have to say I’m thoroughly enjoying being back with colleagues who I haven’t seen for a very long time. There’s something tremendously bonding about being with the same group of people week in, week out. I’d forgotten that aspect of my former life, and if it turned out that I was destined to sing in choirs and choruses for the rest of my career, I would be delighted. I’d love to have a solo career, of course, but my priorities have changed a great deal over the last few years, so we’ll just have to see what happens.
JP: Looking back now on that time what are your thoughts?
EM: In many ways it has taught me a huge amount about who I am. I was training as a Life Coach when I got the diagnosis and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Part of the training meant I had to receive coaching as well as give coaching, and this enabled me to work through all the issues of ‘identity’ I had. I learned that singing needn’t define me, especially as I am now a certified Life Coach as well. For so many people, being a singer is the most important thing (it was certainly the case for me), and if they reach a point where they can no longer sing they lose that ‘personal construct’: the identity of who they are. One of the biggest pieces of learning I’ve done since my own identity crash is that, when we singers define ourselves purely by the quality of our voice, and by what other people think of it, we are doomed only to feel validation from those other people’s opinions. I’ve seen singers collapse, crushed by phrases as simple as ‘perhaps wasn’t quite as polished’ or ‘was pretty good’.
We’re supposed to be this magical combination of able-to-bare-our-souls one minute, and thick-skinned and armoured-against-criticism the next.
I’m still working on this balance, but the thing I’ve found most helpful right now is this: if I don’t define my whole being by my voice, if I understand that someone else’s view of my performance is simply an opinion, that all that really matters is ‘did I give a performance that I was proud of?’, then that’s all that really matters. Also, I’m much more than ‘a singer’: being a singer is one personal construct that makes up a part of who I am. I’m also a sister, a daughter, a partner, a coach, a friend, and several other things that combine to make me uniquely who I am. Being present in all those personal constructs, showing up, not being afraid to be vulnerable in all of those roles helps me to understand who I am as a singer too, but being a singer must never be the be-all-and-end-all.
It’s much easier said than done, but it’s the continued practise of this kind of conscious mindfulness that will help keep us strong and vulnerable.
JP: … and looking ahead?
EM: I would love to go back to at least a 70:30 singing and coaching career. So many doors have opened up to me while I was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do and how I might earn a living. I started the Meister Music Opera Platform to help other singers in the UK wishing to return to their career after they have had a period of absence, whether it be through personal/family circumstances, or whether they, like me, have gone through a significant change in their vocal development. Since launching my website in 2015 I have had hundreds of emails from singers around the UK and Europe. Although it’ll be a little while before I can fully launch the project (these things are jolly expensive!) I am currently writing personal development workshops, and organising social events, offering a safe space for singers in very small groups to talk about things that are worrying them. We often open up to others who have been through similar experiences, but if we don’t know who those people are, we might decide to keep it all bottled up, and down that path lies trouble.
JP: What roles are you hoping to sing in the future?
EM: There’s so much repertoire I’d love to explore. I want to keep my voice nice and supple, so that I can sing those beautiful legato lines of Donizetti and Bellini. Sometimes, though, I think I should just stick to the German repertoire, as it’s really gutsy and visceral, and really taps into some part of me that loves to express myself in that way. In terms of specific roles, I’d love to sing the Marschallin one day, certainly do more Sieglindes and, if my voice allows it, Isolde and Brünnhilde. I adore Verdi’s heroines too – there are too many to name now. I would also want to keep my voice as fresh as it can be. I want to sing the roles that fit the voice, rather than the other way around.
I’ve had glimpses into the amazing career that my initial trajectory had pointed to, and it really has been wonderful – apart from, you know, the abject poverty and the homelessness – but I have now got something else: a much greater sense of my identity, and the knowledge that I can help others, whether it’s through coaching or the Opera Platform. I may yet return to that trajectory and it’d be wonderful to return to ROH, and perhaps even the Met may well still be on the cards when not so long ago it definitely was not. ‘Que sera, sera’ as they say, and as long as I continue to do everything with the utmost integrity, I’ll be happy whatever I’m doing.
JP: Thank you and yours is an inspirational story of triumph over adversity and it is great to have you back singing and I look forward to what you do in the future.
MONICA HUGGETT IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN
If one wanted a broad picture of the evolution of historical performance, with intriguing little nuances revealed along the way, there would be few better musicians to talk to than Monica Huggett. She has been an unremitting force for four decades, well known from her early association with the Academy of Ancient Music and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, and these days as Artistic Director of the Portland and Irish Baroque Orchestras, and Adviser to the Juilliard Historical Program. This interview traces the violinist’s experiences from the time when the authentic movement was just gathering momentum. Most important are her insights about how historical performance has developed out of a number of contrasting approaches that have cross-fertilized each other. Equally interesting are her ideas on where historical scholarship and performance practice still have room to grow, what she wants to achieve from an orchestra in interpretation, and how she has maintained an undiminished inspiration all this time. The interview took place in conjunction with the Vancouver Bach Festival in August 2016, where Monica Huggett directed the Pacific Baroque Orchestra in the Complete Bach Orchestral Suites (review). Read more
Arabella Steinbacher in conversation with Michael Cookson, Dresden 2016
My first exposure to the playing of Munich born violinist Arabella Steinbacher was in 2011 when reviewing her recording of the Shostakovich violin concertos on Orfeo. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2011/June11/Shostakovich_Steinbacher_C687061A.htm
A child prodigy on the violin Steinbacher started lessons aged 3 and 5 years later became the youngest violin student of Ana Chumachenko at the Munich Academy of Music. In 2000 Steinbacher won the Joseph-Joachim-Violinwettbewerbes Hannover when she was 19 and the Förderpreis des Freistaates Bayern a year later. In 2004 she made her concert debut playing at short notice for an indisposed soloist with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Sir Neville Marriner in Paris.
Certainly a thrilling musician, Steinbacher has made an impressive reputation for herself with several excellent recordings under her belt. One of the finest violinists around compared to a group of talented soloists of her generation, curiously, she is not as well known as her talent deserves; especially in the U.K. Read more
Jan Vogler in conversation with Michael Cookson
Not only is Jan Vogler a renowned cellist on the international stage but driven by his insatiable appetite for music he also serves as Intendant of the Dresden Music Festival; with his contract recently extended until 2021. I have attended the festival for several years and under Vogler’s management the festival has grown to one of international renown attracting the world’s finest artists. Read more
Inside and Outside Conducting: Geoffrey Newman Interviews Christopher Seaman
Piotr Beczała in conversation with Michael Cookson
It was wonderful to have the opportunity to interview star international tenor Piotr Beczała whom I met in the lounge of his Dresden hotel. There was a great feeling of anticipation in the city for the revival of Christine Mielitz’s Lohengrin at the Semperoper as in few days time. Piotr was to sing the title role with Anna Netrebko as Elsa; their first Wagner roles. Read more
Verdi, Aida: Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana, Ramón Tebar (conductor), Palau de Les Arts, Valencia, 2.3.2016 (JMI)
The Pursuit of Discovery: An Interview with Conductor John Storgårds
Over the last five years or so, Finnish conductor John Storgårds has seemed to be everywhere: his compelling performances with the BBC Philharmonic, his Proms appearances, his recent recordings of the complete Sibelius and Nielsen symphonies for Chandos, and many other recordings on Ondine, including his new Zemlinsky. Yet Maestro Storgårds, now 52, really only picked up a baton some twenty years ago, having spent most of his early career as a violinist and concertmaster. Even his early focus as a conductor was hardly standard: he endlessly sought out the scores of hitherto-neglected Finnish and Nordic composers, often premiering their works and recording them for the first time. These projects are still ongoing, perhaps even accelerating, and have been sufficiently extensive that the conductor already has over fifty recordings to his name. While Storgårds currently continues as Artistic Director of the Lapland Chamber Orchestra – an ensemble that is close to his heart – the conductor may be at a minor turning point. He has just relinquished his post as Music Director of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and, while carrying on as Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, has now added the same appointment with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa. Our discussion began with the latter but quickly moved to the conductor’s general quest for discovery in repertoire and interpretation, and his very rapid ascent to becoming an absolutely front-rank conductor. I managed to catch up with the maestro in mid-January in Vancouver after rehearsal for performances of Tchaikovsky and Zemlinsky with violinist Augustin Hadelich.
Geoffrey Newman: So you are now Principal Guest Conductor of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa. What is involved and what is your feeling on conducting a smaller orchestra?
John Storgårds: I’m going to do four or five projects a year in Ottawa. I was there last week, and I will be back in May again. The visits will be pretty regular, like twice per season, but will not involve as much as I’ve been doing in Manchester. The orchestra is about fifty players (though it can be expanded), and I find it a very flexible and good group. I feel a nice kind of ‘hunger’ inside the orchestra. They really want to go in different musical directions and styles, which is very nice. This last visit was my fourth time there, and every time I’ve done very different kinds of programs. I’ve grown up with symphony of that size – as a concert master – so it’s fully part of my vocabulary to be working with them. It’s a three-year contract at the moment.
GN: A smaller orchestra should allow you to do a lot more Classical repertoire. Are you interested at all in authentic orchestration?
JS: If you’re talking about size of orchestra, then yes, absolutely! I don’t want to do Mozart, or even early Beethoven, with too large a force. You may not have guessed, but I do admire musicians such as Nicolaus Harnoncourt. He really went deep into discovering things, and I respect him for that. I have played Baroque violin myself, and also in chamber orchestras. At the same time, when I conduct Mozart or C.P.E. Bach, I don’t want to be stuck in thinking, ‘Is this authentic enough or not?’ I just trust what I feel is natural and right, and that comes down to my experiences.
GN: What were your thoughts on leaving the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra? I heard that your final concert was Mahler’s 7th Symphony.
JS: I was there as Chief Conductor for seven-and-a-half years exactly. And before that, I was Principal Guest Conductor for five years. This was one after the other, so I’ve been very tightly connected to the orchestra for almost thirteen years. Of course, the responsibility was very clear and specific for these years, and it had already been planned that I would end at exactly this point. It was nice to be able to leave this job when things were going very well: the last two or three years with the Helsinki Phil have been the best and most intense that we’ve had together – a lot of great recordings, for example.
GN: You might take on even more before we know it?
JS: I may, but I’m not rushing into anything more because I think it is a nice package as it is right now. I still live in Finland, so I want to have that as my base. I grew up in Helsinki, and my family is based in Lapland: my wife is from the very far north. These connections are obviously very important to me, as is the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, which is an essential part of my work. I will continue to do many different projects in Finland, especially in Helsinki. And I still play my violin, and I keep up my playing too.
GN: One thing that stands out about your career is your interest and research into neglected Finnish and Nordic composers, and your recordings of this repertoire on the Ondine label. Were these recordings your idea or more a collaborative project with the company?
JS: We did this together. I have known founder Reijo Kiilunen from way back when I was almost a kid. We have a very easy relationship and know each other well enough to be able to discuss all kind of things freely and openly. I’ve been recording with Ondine since the late 1980s, originally as violinist/ concertmaster of an extraordinarily adventurous ensemble: the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra. It still exists today. But even from my teenage years – even before I was professional – I found musical exploration very natural. I was never afraid of any kind of new music, and I also loved to find sadly-neglected pieces from older times. Obviously, the great pieces from the past are remembered, but there are so many very good pieces that are not. Somebody has to find them and take them up, and I feel happy to be one of those who do this. It’s so much more interesting than just doing the basic repertoire. Of course, I like to do the basic repertoire too, that’s not a problem. I just need more.
GN: Your desire to put ‘neglected’ composers on the map seems especially wide-ranging. Which composers really stand out for you?
JS: I do have my own ‘list’ of important composers that I think deserve real attention, each of whom is a strong and individual voice, either historically or now. Composers like the Finns Einojuhani Rautavaara, Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho and Kalevi Aho, or Swede Anders Hillborg, really don’t need help any more, as they are now known and played all over the world – which is wonderful! But just looking at the Finns, there are a number of composers who should be better recognized, and I have done everything to bring attention to them. These include Erkki Melartin (1875-1937), who has rested too long in the shadow of Sibelius; and a very talented composer who died tragically at age 21, Ernst Mielk (1877-1899). I have recorded, as a soloist, the Violin Concerto of the former and the Konzertstück for Violin and Orchestra of the latter. Also Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947), who studied with Sibelius, and Uuno Klami (1900-1961), both of which I have recorded.
Closer to the present but no longer with us, I would highlight Usko Meriläinen (1930-2004) and Pehr Henrik Nordgren (1944-2008), whose works I have both premiered and recorded. For the composers of today, Jukka Tiensuu (b. 1948) particularly stands out. I should also mention Latvian Peteris Vasks (b. 1946), who I have also recorded extensively as of late.
GN: What names would you extend this to when considering all Nordic composers?
JS: The Danes definitely deserve attention. I would not remotely place Vagn Holmboe in the ‘undiscovered’ category, since he is accepted by many as the most prominent Danish composer since Carl Nielsen, and his complete symphonies and string quartets have been on record for years. However, many of his works are still left to explore, and I have just premiered and recorded his three chamber symphonies with the Lapland Chamber Orchestra (on DaCapo). As far as living composers, I fully believe Per Nørgård (b. 1932) is the greatest Nordic symphonist of our time! My recordings of four of his symphonies with the Oslo Philharmonic will be released this spring. I also gave the world premiere of his latest (and perhaps last) symphony, No. 8, with the Helsinki Philharmonic. I regard it as a major masterpiece.
Of the younger Danish composers, one has to be really impressed with Hans Abrahamsen (b. 1952). His wonderful song cycle ‘let me tell you’ is now known all over the world since its premiere with the Berlin Phil in 2013. Everything else he’s done has been fantastic too. The same goes for Bent Sørensen (b. 1958), a student of Per Nørgård: a recording of some of his wonderful chamber/orchestral pieces will be released this year, again with the Lapland Chamber Orchestra.
Of the Swedes, Hilding Rosenberg (1892-1995) and Anders Eliasson (1947-2013) are very important to me, as are Norwegians Fartein Valen (1887-1952) and Rolf Wallin (b. 1957). I’ve performed major works by all of them and recorded the latter. Jon Leifs (1899-1968) is the most important Icelandic composer, and I have already recorded some works by Sunleif Rasmussen (b. 1961, Faroe Islands). I gave the world premiere of his 2nd Symphony with the Helsinki Philharmonic in September 2015, and a recording will also be released this year.
GN: I note that your fascination with the neglected goes beyond the Nordic composers. For example, you have recently championed the works of Alexander Zemlinsky. How did this interest begin?
JS: I heard some of Zemlinsky’s chamber music (probably his string quartets) a long time ago, and I was quite amazed. Since then, I kept on wondering why he’s not better known, and I began to examine more and more of his works. Recently, Reijo Kiilunen and I were discussing which recording projects would be interesting for both the Helsinki Philharmonic and also for me, and Zemlinsky’s name came up: in particular his ‘Little Mermaid’. I didn’t know this piece from before, got the score, and started listening to the Riccardo Chailly recording and the few others that existed. But there was a big problem: the music was just fantastic but the original score had material taken out of it. So we had to put it back. The shape of the piece is brilliant, it’s moving, it’s logical, it’s beautiful, and inside it’s really full of such colorful orchestration that it could only be the work of a master. It’s amazing to think that the composer himself withdrew the piece from his list of compositions at one time. Zemlinsky not only didn’t care about promoting this piece, he tried to forget it.
What impresses me so much about this composer is that he could adapt influences from everybody and still stay himself. You can hear things that make you think, ‘Aha! This is like Richard Strauss (who he knew and admired)’ and ‘Aha! This is a related to Schoenberg!’ And some things are like Mahler and Kurt Weill. The other piece that we recorded on the CD with the Mermaid is the Sinfonietta. Here the style is really very close to Kurt Weill, perhaps Hindemith too. Sometimes in his music, you even think that you could be listening to Brahms. You listen five minutes and conclude that you are not listening to Brahms: this is someone else, this is original. Now, after being more involved with his music, it is easy for me to say, yes, this is uniquely Zemlinsky.
My newest recording, just released on Ondine this January, features world premieres of the composer’s ‘Seven Songs of Night and Dream’ and his Chamber Symphony (based on String Quartet No. 2), with mezzo Jenny Carlstedt and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra.
GN: Talking about all this, perhaps it is true that any great musician has to be an explorer of sorts?
JS: Yes, the more you know about all the kinds of in-between things by composers of all times and persuasions, the easier it is for you place the really big composers and big compositions in the right context. You understand the relationships between this and that, and how different styles work. You learn that there were a lot of creative people developing music at the same time, and often interacting with each other. This insight makes the whole field much more interesting. I feel also that being curious gives you good energy for the any musical undertaking. If you keep that curiosity even when you do something like Beethoven’s 5th, or other big standard pieces, then you will look at the score like it’s fresh from today, and ask: ‘What do I find here now?’ Some might say that some sort of routine is good in conducting, but I would agree only insofar as you never get lazy in your approach. Even if you have conducted a work countless times, you still must retain your enthusiasm and try to see the score afresh. There always must be something that you want to prove to yourself and to everybody: this work is worth doing, and this is what I genuinely find in it! Of course, with ‘neglected’ works, this is absolutely essential.
Being Finnish, everyone asks me to do the Sibelius symphonies all the time, but he’s a great enough great composer to always keep things interesting I’ve done the 2nd Symphony probably fifty times, yet I always find something new when conducting the work. And I don’t purposely try to find something new, it just happens when you honestly immerse yourself in the score and the music.
GN: How did this desire for discovery come out in your violin career?
JS: Of course, I practised all the standard pieces during my studies. Yet I was always interested in finding works that not everybody was playing. I did many ‘new music’ things but I also did the Schumann violin concerto, which I recorded for Ondine a long time ago. At that time, the concerto was not nearly as accepted as it is now, nor even of interest to many violinists. Now it’s in the standard repertoire, and almost all violinists are playing it. In fact, the only violinist who championed the work in the older days was Henryk Szeryng. He didn’t do anything unusual with it, but he really made the piece substantial and played it wonderfully. Then came Gidon Kremer, who has now recorded it twice: those were the only two violinists I knew when I made my recording. For me, performing this work was finding something in the Romantic era that I believed in and thought was important to investigate, rather than playing Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Sibelius as all my colleagues were doing.
GN: It is interesting that we just saw young Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen here a few weeks ago, and he was accomplished violinist too. Is there something about the Finnish way that makes most conductors start as violinists?
JS: It’s true, a lot of us are violinists, and virtually all have been string players. I used to say that it’s all Jorma Panula’s fault because he was the ‘big’ professor of the conductor class, the trainer of so many Finnish conductors, and he was always scouting around the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra and other groups of young musicians to find new people to enlist. He would point his finger at some of us (particularly concertmasters), saying: ‘Aha! He’s a leader, he’s a leader! These are the active violinists!’ His message was direct: ‘You should start conducting.’ Of course, it is very logical that leaders might become good conductors, but it needed a dynamic guru like him get us to think about the idea. Panula is retired now, in his 80s. He hasn’t been teaching officially for a long time, but in reality he has never stopped.
GN: So how exactly did you take up conducting?
JS: My first experience was with the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra. The musicians and young Finnish composers were frequently getting together, experimenting and trying this and that. One day my colleagues asked me, ‘Do you want to lead a Haydn symphony without a conductor?’ I said, ‘Why not?’, and ended up directing the symphony from the violin, standing in front of the orchestra to hold time. Still not really conducting – but close! – and I did have to read the full score to prepare the rehearsals. Then, in 1992, I was asked to become the conductor with the Helsinki University Symphony Orchestra, the biggest amateur symphony in Finland. We rehearsed every Wednesday, and planned one big concert a season. That was my first big appointment, and I undertook it even though I was still not in the conducting class at the academy. When Jorma Panula heard about this, he was almost angry at me and said, ‘Now, if you are chief conductor of the Helsinki University Symphony Orchestra, you come to the class!’ And then I went back to study at the Sibelius Academy from 1993-1997. I perhaps only started serious conducting around 1995 or 1996, when I was already over 30. An early highlight of this period was a debut with the Helsinki Philharmonic in 1994.
GN: Bruno Walter once said that it took him over forty years to even come close to mastering the slow movement of Beethoven’s 4th Symphony. How did you manage to become a fine conductor so quickly?
JS: Well, by those standards, I guess I started a little late! However, I suppose that I really had all the music inside me. I had quite a huge experience as a violinist at that point and had explored a very wide repertoire. I had played in a Baroque orchestra, and I was doing a lot of new music and premiering new difficult violin pieces. But I also had played the important Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mozart repertoire as a chamber musician. Of course, I had been a concertmaster in chamber orchestras. My principal experience with large orchestras came later when I had the opportunity to act as Principal Guest Concertmaster of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. That’s how I first got into performing Mahler and Bruckner and the really big scores.
GN: But being a successful conductor is not just about repertoire; a lot of it is attitude and being able to communicate to a group.
JS: That is where being a concertmaster really helped. I know that I originally had some difficulties in behaving myself as a concertmaster: if I got frustrated about something, it was all too clear. So I learned quickly from the chair that the most important important thing about being in a big orchestra is to control yourself even if you get frustrated, angry, or nervous about things. If you are a leader, either as a concertmaster or especially as a conductor, you must not show any of this. Otherwise, everyone gets stuck: you can never achieve the performance or sound you want if everyone is frightened of you. If you want flexible music-making and good energy, you must always be encouraging. Even if you do get frustrated briefly, you have to always seek clear and immediate solutions to the problem.
GN: One thing I have noted about your conducting is the degree of structural control that you achieve. I know you studied with Panula at the Sibelius Academy and, later, Eri Klas, and Esa-Pekka Salonen is sometimes mentioned. However, it seems to me that you must have some debt to distinguished earlier generation conductors such as Neeme Järvi or Paavo Berglund?
JS: I do know Salonen, but I didn’t really study with him. After Panula officially retired, Eri Klas was the professor of the class, so he was my teacher for a short while. I’ve actually never seen Neeme Järvi live, but I do appreciate how musical he is; everything is so natural and organic in his conducting. But I’m glad you named Paavo Berglund, since he was singularly the most important influence on me. He was absolutely my biggest hero, and we had a very special association in the last two or three years of his life. He didn’t actively conduct anymore, but he was still actively thinking about music. He made an effort to come to my concerts, and I think I was probably the only young colleague whose performances he attended at this time. He wanted to encourage me, which was fantastic. I even went to his home in Helsinki and read through all the Sibelius symphonies with him. This was such a great honour: even before I knew him in person, of all the Finnish conductors, he was the one who had made the biggest impression – right from when I was a kid.
GN: Are there any more classic conductors that might have influenced your style?
JS: You mentioned Bruno Walter, and I think he was a big influence. The other was almost the opposite in style: George Szell. I think Szell achieved wonderful standards of orchestral precision and was amazingly ahead of his time in his approach to Haydn and Schumann, for example. Of course, Bernstein has been a very big influence too, for the sheer ‘con spirito’ in everything he did. I’m also a fan of Carlos Kleiber.
GN: Now let’s talk about recording and performance. One thing I have noted is the sheer number of companies you have recorded for. A good portion of your work is for Ondine, but now you are working with Chandos, for example. The Lapland Chamber Orchestra seems to record for a variety of companies too. How did all this arise?
JS: I was exclusive with Ondine for a while, but then I discussed this with Reijo, and he understood that it doesn’t make sense for me to record only for him since I’m involved with so many different kinds of projects. So I’m not married to any one label anymore, though I still do a great amount with Ondine. When I became Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Phil, the orchestra had an exclusive arrangement with Chandos. It was then part of our original agreement that I would do the Sibelius symphony cycle for Chandos. But I am also doing the music of Kalevi Aho for BIS, and recording with the Lapland Chamber orchestra for them, DaCapo, and Ondine. I also have discs on Caprice, Orfeo, and some smaller Finnish labels, and I did the Busoni Violin Concerto with Frank Peter Zimmermann for Sony. Believe it or not, I have also recorded for the Blue Note jazz label twice – as conductor, as violinist, and as singer.
GN: Many critics have discussed your recent Sibelius and Nielsen cycles. What is own your feeling on where these performances come from and fit in the historical mix?
JS: Of course, I knew all kinds of recordings of both composers when I began. For Nielsen, there have been certain recordings that have had a big impact on me: for example, those of Herbert Blomstedt. It does help to hear this and that, but when I started the recording project, I tried to listen to nothing, really. I just read the scores and trusted myself. Also, in doing things with an orchestra that has not played these composers too frequently, it was fortunate that we had a lot of time to get things together, which was great. We moved little by little – through concerts, rehearsals, and more concerts – before we started recording anything. It was very cleverly planned. Outside of this, I guess I feel that my interpretations are not directly influenced by too many others. Of course, I know that when it comes to Sibelius, there are certain things in my approach that are clearly closer to Paavo Berglund than they are to, say, Leonard Bernstein, even if I can like that too.
GN: It always intrigues me that, when you listen to the classic performances of Jensen and Tuxen (Nielsen) and Kajanus and Grøndahl (Sibelius), there is a lean directness to their posture and interpretation, seldom trying to make things as lush and romantic as some interpreters later. This is true of Anthony Collins and Sir Thomas Beecham too. Do you think that these early interpreters essentially got it right?
JS: In many ways, the problem is finding the right ‘sound’ for these composers. You really have to find a Nielsen ‘sound’: it doesn’t need too much sugar, or this and that, but everything must be very clear and direct. When he wants big accentuations, you really have to make those. You shouldn’t attempt to be sophisticated in your concept of balance. With Sibelius, I think the sound differences are bigger from symphony to symphony. You have to find one sound for the first symphony (perhaps the first and the second), but from thereon, the same mood and sound doesn’t work. You have to find a very specific, unique sound for the 4th. Part of this is about the bowing technique and vibrato you employ for the strings. Nos. 5 and 6 are very different. With Nielsen, the sound is more consistent throughout his six symphonies and there is often a similarity in the feeling. Again, you always have to find a directness of expression, you have to let the big explosive contrasts happen, and you can never squirm around or romanticize the sound too much. Of course, there are some adjustments you must make: No. 5 doesn’t work with the same approach as you would take in, say, Nos. 1 and 2.
GN: Glancing through your concert reviews, it is clear that your conducting really makes an impact on audiences, and the terms such as ‘exciting’, ‘gripping’, and ‘full of energy and life’ seem to make their appearance more often than not. I know it is difficult for an interpreter to perceive what others see and feel, but how might you explain these qualities?
JS: That is a challenging question but perhaps something basic is that I try to really live the music here and now, whenever I do any concert. But this is easier said than done. What seems to be very important is to instill a sense of freedom in the orchestra by the time you reach performance time. A lot of this comes down to your preparation in rehearsals and your ability to build a good relationship within the ensemble at that point. If one can do this and generate a true sense of togetherness, then everyone can be more spontaneous and ‘in the moment’ at the concert. I can make certain small moves or do things a little bit differently than in the rehearsal. That keeps all of us very intense in seeing these differences through. I hope that I’ve learned over the years how to prepare myself and the ensemble in a way that more consistently produces this freedom and energy. Take a piece like Shostakovich 4, a really difficult piece but one I have had some success with. Here there can be no freedom at all at concert time if it’s not prepared absolutely precisely. Of course, with all the factors that might come into play at a given concert, it is probably impossible to fully answer this question, but if I had to answer, I would think mainly about these factors.
I am indebted to Kelly Bao for recording and transcriptional assistance.
Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com