We met with Hannu Lintu at the Helsinki Music Centre before his first rehearsal of Mahler’s Symphony No.8in August 2018 (it was broadcast by Finnish television around the world and was part of Helsinki Festival 2018), over coffee and tasty Karelian pies. Hannu projected an atmosphere of intellectualism, openness and kindness, and it was revealing to hear him talk about connections between musical histories and lives of two countries – Russia and Finland, and in particular of two neighbouring cities – Helsinki and St Petersburg. He made insights into his work as a conductor, showing how it is made up of daily work, daily perception of new information and continuous self-development. He also spoke about Finnish musical education system and a constant need to nurture younger generations. Hannu Lintu makes you trust him as a leader and as a teacher, and I observed these qualities at work during his rehearsal with children’s and adult choirs later on. Although music-making still remains a mysterious process, some pathways towards understanding it are indicated by Hannu Lintu in this interview.

Hannu Lintu. Photo credit Kaapo Kamu

Excerpts from his biography:

Hannu Lintu is the Chief Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. He studied cello and piano at the Sibelius Academy, where he later studied conducting with Jorma Panulaand Ilya MusinHe participated in masterclasses with Myung-Whun Chung at the L’Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy, and took first prize at the Nordic Conducting Competition in Bergen in 1994. 2018/19 season marks Hannu Lintu’s sixth year as Chief Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Highlights include all ten Mahler symphonies – Lintu opens the cycle at the Helsinki Festival in August 2018 with No.8 “Symphony of a Thousand”, andFinnish premieres such as the vocal symphony version of Zimmermann’sopera Die Soldatenand Thomas Larcher’s Symphony No.2, and concerto performances by acclaimed soloists including Yuja Wang, Evgeny Kissin and Stephen Hough.A regular in the pit, Lintu works frequently with the Finnish National Opera and Ballet, returning in March 2019 to conduct Berg’s Wozzeck.

Yulia Savikovskaya: During your student years at Sibelius Academy in Helsinki was there a certain Finnish school of conducting?

Hannu Lintu: No, there is no Finnish school of conducting. If you think of Finnish conductors, we all look different, we all sound different. That is because – especially during Jorma Panula professorship – we could do anything we wanted. He did not have any technical school. He just wanted us to make music: to have musical ideas and then communicate those ideas to the orchestra in our own way. He never told us, you know, that hands should make certain kinds of movement. That means that all Finnish conductors are technically different. We do different things, we sound different. And here is what is really interesting: when I studied with Jorma Panula at the Sibelius Academy, we also had a guest professor, Ilya Musin, who was from St Petersburg. He, on the contrary, had a very strict technical school, and it was a really good combination. But I still think that the secret of Finnish conducting is in that it is free: it is technically free, and it is all about finding yourself as a musician.

YS: Did connections with Soviet Union exist in the 1970s and 1980s? Were Russian performers able to come to Finland and did you attend some of those concerts?

HL: Yes, I think we are in a happy position in Helsinki. Helsinki was the first place, the first foreign city to organize a recital for Grigory Sokolov, for instance. He was really young at that time, I was not here, it was before I came to Helsinki. But he played at the Sibelius Academy Concert Hall, and there were probably 16 people attending (laughs). But since then he has been coming every year – he has been this year, too, and now he is like one of our own pianists (laughs), because people just love him. We had Emil Gilels – I heard him live once. Richter came, and of course conductors like Svetlanov and Rozhdestvensky. So I can say that Helsinki was a really, really good place to observe musicians that came from the Soviet Union. All the new stars came here, and I think they were somehow tested by the Soviet government in being sent here (laughs). If they survived and the KGB not detect anything wrong with them, they then might have sent them to Berlin or London. Rostropovich also came: he actually had a house in Lappeenranta, near the border. So I think we are privileged in the way that all great Soviet artists were coming here.

Hannu Lintu. Photo credit VEIKKO KÄHKÖNEN

YS: While building up your knowledge of music, could you say that there were preferences among composers that you especially liked and aimed at conducting their work later, and were there any Russian composers among them?

HL: When I was studying, of course, a very big chunk of our studies was Sibelius, which is natural. And the other big chunk was Viennese classical music, especially Haydn. And the third big chunk was contemporary music. Professor Panula always wanted us to conduct contemporary music. And only then, when we had studied all these three categories, we did Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann. I would say that Tchaikovsky, for instance – I loved him since I was a kid. His sound always had a big meaning for me, and there was a time when I started to conduct, when I did my first concerts, I had a feeling that I could not touch Tchaikovsky, that I would destroy Tchaikovksy. But then gradually I started to conduct him – I did the late symphonies, I did his Serenade for Strings, I did lots of his concertos. Finally I felt I had something to say through and with Tchaikovksy, but it took some time. When I started to study conducting, I wanted to learn about such Russian composers as Borodin and Mussorgsky – I love Mussorgsky, especially his early version of ‘Night on Bald Mountain’. It is an incredibly modern piece, and he was such a modern and wild figure. And then there was even a time when I did a lot of Glazunov symphonies, because there was something in him… I admire his technical abilities a lot. And this is what I admire in Russian composers in general – they are always technically first class, orchestration is done in a perfect way. The technique, music and sound are always in good balance with Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Balakirev, Rimsky – whoever it is. It is always technically perfect. Mussorgsky was the only exception – his music just was not played, he could not develop his musical language because nobody ever played his music. And I have the same feeling with Glazunov – there was a time when I found him a perfect composer, with whom all the melodic materials and harmonies and orchestration – everything was in balance. I am not a fan of all his symphonies, but 4 and 5 had been the pieces that I played a lot. And then there was a time when somebody introduced me to Silvestrov and Schnittke. But I am not that familiar with contemporary Russian composers.

YS: How do you make judgements about conducting when you are on the podium yourself or when you attend the concerts of your colleagues?

HL: Nowadays I find it difficult to go to any concert. Of course, I go to concerts conducted by colleagues, but I find it very hard and very labourous to listen, because I analyse all the time. I can’t just «lay back» and listen. It is very difficult for me now. And all the time I tend to analyse the conductor, register things in his or her work… But I think everything works when I forget to analyse. That doesn’t happen very often, but I suppose that when I stop analysing, it is a sign that it is a very good concert. I am not paying attention to how it is performed any more, but I am paying attention to its musical aspects. And then your own concerts are of course entirely different things. I am very seldom happy with them. I always realize that there are things that did not go well, or things that could have gone better, or I think that I did not manifest a particular thing enough, or the tempo was wrong, or God knows what. And I think the happiest moments are when I feel that the orchestra is happy, when orchestra and me, we both feel that we achieved something together. You don’t talk about those things. It is something that’s in the air. And when this is in the air, then I am happy. If the performers are happy, it is most probable that the audience is happy, as well. And then I am happy. But that doesn’t happen that often.

Hannu Lintu. Photo credit VEIKKO KÄHKÖNEN

YS: How being a musician and a conductor influences your perception of life, your world outlook?

HL: Everything I do is around my profession. I study 365 days a year, I study all the time. When I take a vacation to wherever, I have scores with me all the time. And, you know, I might spend the day by the pool, but then I go and study at least for three hours. It’s a way of life. If you are a conductor, you can never leave your scores. And everything else you do contributes to this, as well. I read a lot and I really think that reading supports music making. I really think that musicians should read – they should know about history, about literature – because everything you read will manifest itself somehow, it helps you to understand composers’ intentions better. If you know about life of Tchaikovsky, if you know about writings of Wagner, if you know about times when Bach lived, it is so important! And this is what I try to do! Eveything I read somehow, as I feel, supports my music making.

YS: What is the relationship between such three important parts of orchestral music as composer, conductor and an orchestra? Do you consider yourself a channel between a composer and your orchestra? And how do you transmit your vision of a composer’s music to the musicians in the orchestra?

HL: This is a very difficult question. If I could explain it, I would not conduct. I conduct because I can’t verbalise these things. Of course, it is different depending on whether you are working with your own orchestra – when you know each other well and you can start from a certain level of communication – or if you are conducting an orchestra you don’t know, which means that you also have to create a social situation at the same time as rehearsing a piece. What I try to do is always to create a certain kind of sound. My sound probably comes just from the fact that I am there. We have different sounds, no matter what we say or what we do. My orchestra sounds differently when another conductor comes to work with it, and I make other orchestras sound differently just by approaching them. But then of course, if I really want to affect the sound, I always have to go and see the score, and think about the fact that sound comes from the way how notes are connected to each other. In Tchaikovsky you connect the notes differently than you do in Beethoven, for instance. It is mostly about thinking how this note is connected to another, and how that one is connected to the next, because this makes a phrase, phrasing makes sound. And in shaping the phrase you can change the sound. You can do it by thinking about the articulation and about the length of the notes, because that affects the sound. I also think about what is happening between the notes. Otherwise music becomes vertical. So, the horizontal aspect is very important in creating the right kind of sound. And then the tempo changes the sound. If you meet an orchestra that doesn’t want to change articulation and is resistant to changing its sound, you can just change the tempo, and they will have to change the sound and articulation.

YS: So in way the conductor is the intellectual force behind the performance, isn’t it? You seem to be the one who does all this work of studying the score and the historical context beforehand?

HL: Yes, but musicians always do some work, as well. Especially if are doing a basic repertoire piece, good orchestral musicians always have an idea already. They have their preferred way of playing Brahms or Tchaikovsky or Beethoven. My task is actually also to listen to their ideas, because when they start playing a symphony in the first rehearsal, they also offer me something. I also offer them something, but it is my duty to make a mixture of all this. There are lots of things offered by the orchestra that I would like to accept, but since they are probably offering 85 different things because they are all individuals, it is my duty to make it an entity somehow, to make it sound as if everything had been planned. I realize very often that I have to abandon my own plans, because I get so many very good ideas from the orchestra. Sometimes I realize that I have to change my tempo. Sometimes my entire concept of the piece or composer changes. So it is not only about my ideas, it is also about collective ideas.

Hannu Lintu. Photo credit Kaapo Kamu

YS: Could you describe your work with Russian musicians? Could you share your memories about them?

HL: Recently I’ve been playing a lot with Daniil Trifonov – we just did Schumann in Lisbon. Here he played Ravel, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, and we had a tour with Nikolai Lugansky playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. There was a time when we toured a lot with Alexander Toradze – we did a lot of Prokofiev. Then there are lots of artists who were born in Russia or Soviet Union but moved early, like Igor Levitt or Kirill Gerstein, or Alina Pogostkina. I worked a lot with the violinist Sergey Khachatryan. Their nationalities are different, but we still perceive the area they come from as one entity, although we know that it no longer is. There was a time when I played a lot with Vadim Repin, now I play with Vadim Gluzman. And there are also singers – Mischa Petrenko comes here a lot, he is one of my favourite bass-baritones. And now we have found a fantastic soprano – Pelageya Kurennaya. Last year I introduced Pelageya in St Louis in the USA, where we did Rachmaninov ‘The Bells’, and Pelageya is coming here to sing in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. We are very happy to be near St Petersburg, as all the great singers are very near, so we can always invite somebody from the city. So yes, Russian musicians are very important to me, and they are so, so popular here. And then of course Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra has their own Russians. Recently I played for the first time with recent winner in cello category of the last Tchaikovsky competition – Narek Hakhnazaryan. He is a fantasic cellist – he studied in Moscow, now has an incredible career, and playing in trio with Daniil Trifonov, by the way. Khachatryan, Trifonov and Hakhnazaryan – that’s quite a trio! Sometimes I play with the older generation – like Viktoria Mullova, for instance.

YS: Could you also describe your own experience of performing in Russia? 

HL: I go to Moscow regularly. Next time I will conduct Pletnev’s orchestra  – Russian National Orchestra – it will be in spring 2019. I used to work a lot with Spivakov’s Orchestra – National Philharmonic of Russia. I haven’t been conducting orchestras in St Petersburg at all. But all Moscow orchestras are in a very, very good shape, I think. Speaking about the youngest generation of Russian orchestral musicians – their technical level is incredible. I have always been very happy about the concerts that I’ve given there. The choice of repertoire could be a little bit difficult – even Sibelius could be sometimes difficult in Russia, which is surprising, because I think that Sibelius, especially in his early output, had a lot of Russian influences. Somehow sometimes some Sibelius symphonies had been difficult. Finally the concert turned out to be very good, but the process had been difficult… And also there have been a language problem which had been sorted out with younger people. When I started to go to Moscow, I realized that nobody understands what I say, and somebody was always translating. Young musicians now speak English very well, and everything is well organized. We have also just made a tour with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra – it was in spring 2018, we went to Moscow and St Petersburg, and we went to Vyborg.

YS: Did you feel that Russian audiences are different from Finnish ones?

HL: Yes, the audiences are different. Audiences in Moscow, as of course you know, are also different from audiences in St Petersburg. They are entirely different, it is like a different country. But that is how it is, around the world. In Finland if you go to Tampere, you would realize that people are really different. Audiences are like orchestras, they develop in their own ways. They learn how to behave, how to listen and how to react. The biggest difference is always in reaction. Moscow is very warm and enthusiastic, and when you start playing in St Petersburg people are doubtful at first, they have to make a judgement on you, and then when they realize that this is good, they show it, too. You can feel that they have a stiff upper lip – it is not about hostility, it is this attitude: «Now, show us, we have heard everything, give us something new».

YS: I’ve been thinking – St Petersburg and Helsinki are two cities that are very close to each other geographically. How, in your opinion, the interactions between audiences and musical content in two cities could be mutually improved – so that listeners from St Petersburg indeed planned to come and hear some things here in Musikkitalo and Finnish Opera, while Finnish audiences could make visiting Mariinsky and St Petersburg Philharmonic Hall their normal practice?

HL: Finnish audiences do go to St Petersburg – they go to Mariinsky especially, they do it regularly, all the time, as the train is only 3.5 hours. I am not sure about the Philharmonic Hall, though. It is simple to get a visa nowadays. But there could be more of them, naturally. But the main problem with Russian audiences is that they don’t know what happens in Helsinki. We should advertize there more. I was thinking about Savonlinna Opera this summer – there were no Russians in the audience, which is weird, as it is so close to the Russian border. It is so easy even to drive to Savonlinna, but Russians don’t do that. When they come to Helsinki, they go to Stockmann or Louis Vitton and do shopping, or buy salmon or cheese or whatever catches their fancy. The spend the whole weekend shopping and they go back – which is nice for Helsinki’s budget, but we don’t have any concerts by two symphony orchestras over the weekend… We don’t have many tickets left for anyone, but it would be great if they could come more often – it is a wonderful idea, but I am not a travel expert or guide, or advertizing company representative… But now I realize that I don’t often see Russians coming to my concerts here… But may be things could change in future!