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Finnish Flair – Pietari Inkinen talks to Jeremy Siepmann

September 1, 2011

Pietari Inkinen

Some people seem to have it all. They are necessarily few, and it’s always an illusion (nobody is perfect, and if they were, they would be intolerable, hence imperfect), but the seeming is powerfully persuasive. For many, Pietari Inkinen is one of these. Young (31, which for a globally successful conductor is still young), unselfconsciously good-looking (he doesn’t have to try), exuding a quiet charm which is in no way ingratiating, confident without a suggestion of arrogance, presumably as well-heeled as his present eminence would suggest, he was even, in his youth, in a rock band (it wouldn’t be the same without that).

Many conductors have been violinists; relatively few still are. Inkinen, of course, is one of the latter (who cares about an ex-violinist?). Eugene Ormandy, renowned for decades as the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was not only a violinist, but used to say that he could spot a violinist-conductor from the way he conducted (ditto a pianist-conductor). To what extent, if any, I wondered, has Inkinen’s experience as a violinist shaped, or at least influenced, his development and character as a conductor? ‘Oh, a lot. No question. The strings, after all, are a major part of the symphony orchestra, and of course there are orchestras consisting entirely of strings. The strings play an absolutely vital role in the kind of rich, resonant sound world we encounter in, say, the Sibelius symphonies—and here, even though I’m using the baton, I often feel as if I’m producing the sound with a bow. But of course, strings are only part of the story. In conducting classes, all string players have to study some wind instruments, because the fact is, you have to know as much as possible about everything. But there’s no doubt at all that conductors who have absolutely no contact with string instruments are missing something rather basic! At the same time, in some kinds of repertoire, where there’s a lot of more percussive beating—things like Petrushka or The Rite of Spring—conductors from the old Central European school, where everybody is an excellent pianist, have an advantage over string playing conductors. So it really depends a lot on what you’re conducting.’

Closely related to the development of the symphony, though hardly synonymous with it, is the uniquely conversational world of chamber music (Haydn’s earliest symphonies were virtually indistinguishable from it). Inkinen the violinist is one of the very few front-line conductors who pursues a parallel career as a chamber player, most notably with the Inkinen Trio. Does this nourish him as a symphonic conductor? ‘Basically no, I think, though of course there are borderline exceptions. With the growth of the symphonic idiom and the sheer size of orchestras, any kind of intimate contact between players and sections became increasingly unfeasible. Well before you get to Mahler, and things like Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, there has to be one, single, coordinating point of authority. That said, Mahler is by his own admission all-embracing. I mean, he was reaching for these “out of this world”, “out of this universe” effects, often with as many people on the stage as possible, yet of course there are a lot of incredibly chamber music-like and intimate moments. I mean think of many of the songs, which are very delicately orchestrated, with just a few players (even when, like in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the stage is absolutely littered with people).’

All conducting, all interpretation, is challenging. Inkinen hit the big time early. Has his youth, I wondered, ever added to the challenge? The conductor, after all, is an authority figure, yet in the early years of his international career, many members of the orchestras he conducted had probably been playing professionally since before Inkinen was born (some may even have conducted themselves). How did this affect him? ‘This, of course, is something I can’t think or worry about at all when I’m conducting. I started when I was 14, and have continued on a pretty well regular basis ever since, so it’s become the most natural thing in the world for me to stand in front of an orchestra. But you’re absolutely right about the age gap. And it’s only in the last couple of years that that’s changed. New players joining my own orchestra are now tending to be younger than me—so we’ve reached a point of some significance: I’m getting older! Of course orchestras will look differently at certain people with established names and careers, but they too have been in this sort of situation and have earned this automatic respect, even before they start beating. On the other hand, orchestras will make up their own mind—again very quickly. On some occasions, even if they don’t like the older maestro, they’ll probably tolerate it better than if they really don’t like a young one—just because that person is who he is. Orchestras will generally decide within five minutes whether they like someone or not, and this is obviously much more crucial when the conductor is young and unknown. But orchestras are ever more used these days to seeing younger people in front of them, females in front of them, and it’s not such an issue any more. It’s all about quality. About musicianship and the technical skills required to do the job. If you’re serious and good enough, they’ll realise that at once, and after that everything will go OK.’

Turning from the specific to the general, is conducting as much a psychological art as a musical one? ‘Oh it’s absolutely vital. And it can’t be taught in a conducting class. To a large extent it’s a gift. Some people naturally have a better eye for it than others, more talent for observing that side of things. But if it can’t be taught, it can certainly be learned—through sheer experience. Through observing yourself and others, you can improve in this, you realise more and more how to read people. I’m feeling the importance of this more and more—and I pay more attention to these things than I did in the beginning. Back then I concentrated pretty well exclusively on the strictly musical side of things.’

As far as Inkinen can tell, has the role, the concept, of the conductor significantly changed in the last 50–60 years? Would a latterday David Ewen even think, nowadays, of entitling a book ‘Dictators of the Baton’? Come to that, would the likes of Toscanini, Szell and Reiner get away with it today? ‘That’s an interesting point. I think it depends really on where you are. In certain countries, certain territories, it has undoubtedly become in some ways more democratic—which is sort of ironic, really, when you consider what an undemocratic relationship we’re dealing with. Sometimes, quite often actually, there has to be one person making the decisions or it simply doesn’t work. There definitely still are people who are in complete control of everything like in the old days. Maybe there’s a bit less shouting than Toscanini did in rehearsals, but it still really depends on the person. Whatever the personal attributes of the conductor, the fact remains that if the result is great, then it will still be tolerated.’

Much of Inkinen’s time recently has been devoted to his acclaimed recordings and performances of the complete Sibelius symphonies. Faced with the whole cycle, does he feel that the listener will gain by exploring them chronologically? ‘I’m not sure Sibelius would say so. He certainly didn’t envisage them as a cycle. And one of the things they have in common is precisely how different they are from each other. It’s quite amazing really. At the same time there’s no doubt that listening to them from the beginning does provide a fascinating insight into his continuing evolution as a composer.’

What, I wondered, gives Sibelius his particular individuality? What qualities set him apart, for the listener, from other great composers? ‘One thing that strikes me is something that he doesn’t do. He doesn’t give a primary role to melody, to good tunes. He was after other things. Yes, sure, there are a couple of tunes that you could sing very recognisably, but for all the tremendous differences between them, the symphonies are not about that. They’re more about the general mood and the colours and the orchestrations, and the tensions in the harmonies that create that certain, very particular sound and particular expressive character.’

Speaking of listeners, how conscious is Inkinen of audiences when he conducts? ‘Well of course it’s a completely different situation whether you’re playing to a full house, a half-full house or in the recording studio with nobody. Performing in a packed house is always a wonderful feeling, and I see this in the musicians, who more often than not are in a very special state of excitement—and that just gives a bit extra to the performance. It’s great when everybody is really tuned in like that, fuelling each other. They bring something special to their playing and that motivates them to outdo themselves that night. And that inspires me to the top of my form, to give my all, too. And it happens often, too. Which is fantastic! But then in a very different way, it’s also particularly challenging when the hall is only half full and everybody’s feeling tired in the middle of a tour or something like that. There are so many factors which contribute to a performance. But when everything is perfect then of course, as I say, that’s something really extra special.’

And is that ‘full house’ feeling often difficult to recreate when you’re in the studio? ‘That’s a completely different situation, yes. Completely different. I always try—especially these days—to generate momentum, and to use as big takes as possible. To try and arrive at this mood, and this joy. On the other hand of course, the studio is about maximum precision, and then sometimes you need to couple a few little things here and there. But it’s very important that you try always to recreate the spirit of a concert. Which isn’t easy.’

It can feel strangely intrusive to ask an artist to play favourites with his own recordings, but when I asked Inkinen if any one release stood out for him from the others in his Sibelius cycle, he accepted the question not with enthusiasm, perhaps, but with good grace. And no wonder. ‘Oh that’s a very difficult one. But I think I’d probably say No. 4, because it’s in several ways the strangest one and perhaps the most difficult for a conductor to get into, to really comprehend. Likewise for the musicians. And I think the NZSO did remarkably well there. They really connected with the music in a special, special way, and I was just so pleased with that. I think we really did succeed there.’

And what of the symphonies themselves? Which would he most recommend to the newcomer as the best point of entry? ‘Impossible! It’s impossible to pick one, because they’re all so different and so wonderful. But if I really had a gun at my head I would then, maybe, say…the last one!’

Nobody told me to come armed to this interview, but if I had, I’d have left my six-shooter in its holster. Maestro Inkinen had already outmanoeuvred me. I could have threatened him with ‘Why?’, but that would have been unmannerly. Instead I slowed my Harley-Davidson to a standstill and fired one last question at the man in the side-car. With reassuring finality, I asked about the future. ‘Oh that’s easy,’ he replied. ‘The Ring cycle. I’ve felt very passionately about Wagner for a long time, and I’m just thrilled that this is all happening already. So. I’m now occupied, full steam, really learning that. Actually we’re doing Walküre in concert in New Zealand next year. And then in 2013, in Palermo, it’ll be the whole cycle from the pit. So I’m very, very excited about that.’

I knew the game was up. He knew the interview was over. We parted, as we had met, on the friendliest of terms.

Previous releases of Pietari Inkinen with the New Zealand Symphony:

Pietari Inkinen Biography & Discography

New Zealand Symphony Biography & Discography

Jean Sibelius Symphony Biography & Discography


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