“With many things, it is good to start young. Playing an instrument, but also conducting.” Tarmo Peltokoski, still only 23, ought to know. After a sensational last-minute debut with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in 2022, he will be its Principal Guest Conductor for the next four years. In addition, the young Finn is Music Director of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse.

Tarmo Peltokoski conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
© Karen van Glist

It was a hot day in July when my interview with Peltokoski was scheduled. I finally reached him in Toulouse where he had been rehearsing Mahler with the French orchestra, preparing for a concert a few days later in Amsterdam.

We start our conversation talking about mutual friends in the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen where Peltokoski was appointed Principal Guest Conductor in January 2022, the first conductor to hold this position in this orchestra’s 42-year history. The Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, together with jazz pianist Iiro Rantala, both musician-friends of Peltokoski, recommended him to the orchestra. In the midst of the pandemic, the orchestra invited him for two days of “playing a little music together”.

It reminds me of Daniel Harding, who became chief conductor at Bremen in 1999 when only 24. I asked Peltokoski how he felt having all this responsibility at an age where others are still studying?

“I don’t know. This is just what I’ve always been doing. I would be very frustrated if I still had to be at school. Of course, I’ve taken lot of inspiration from older colleagues. I don’t want to talk about role models or anything like that – I think inspiration is the better word.”

Could he imagine doing something similar to Harding, who after 25 years as a conductor recently started to work as a pilot for Air France?

“Well, I don’t even have a drivers license, so I don’t think am going to start flying planes! It’s very unlikely that I’ll do anything else.”

Peltokoski conducts Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 with the Rotterdam Philharmonic

Does he mind travelling? “I just came back from Hong Kong actually. We had concerts with Kammerphilharmonie a month ago, in Dresden and Köln. Then I went home for two nights. After that I left for Australia for two weeks. That’s not nice,” he laughs, a little tiredly. “Going all the way there I mean. Then I was a week in Hong Kong. Then after the second concert there I literately ran from the stage to a car, to the airport, and flew to Helsinki. I was home for one night. I just changed the stuff from my suitcase, and next morning I flew here to Toulouse.”

I ask who his favourite composer is? “I am a Wagnerian. Just at the moment I am studying this,” Peltokoski holds up the score to Siegfried. “I will be doing it at the end of the month in Latvia. Life is long and I will have time to do all sorts of music many times. I won’t be bored.”

Peltokoski is also a pianist, and has played concertos with orchestras in the past. He hopes to be able to continue doing so in the future. This summer he has been playing chamber music in Latvia. “My favourite thing to do on the piano is playing through operas by myself, and singing all the parts as well! And sometimes I perform them for friends.”

Rotterdam is not an opera orchestra. Would it therefore be a no-go when they offer him the soon-to-be vacant position of Chief Conductor? “Well, I can’t say much about that”, he says together with a big smile. “They do play at the Dutch National Opera sometimes. And I will be doing some concertos next year with them. I’ll bring what I love to Rotterdam!”

Peltokoski and Yuja Wang perform an encore
© Karen van Glist

Is it helpful being a pianist himself when having to conduct, for instance, Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto, as he will this season with Yuja Wang in Rotterdam? “I didn’t play the Bartók concerto, because that as hard as it gets,” Peltokoski says. “I know the repertoire. I know how pianists think. But I have no idea how Yuja thinks – she is just better than anyone else,” he says, laughing, with a lot of genuine admiration. “But yes, I think there is kind of a spiritual connection, especially with pieces I played myself. And there are quite a few of those as well. I am very much looking forward to that.”

Does he also envisage a role in inspiring composers to write new music? “I’ve done a couple of premieres, and some more are coming.” López Bellido’s new Trombone Concerto is coming to Rotterdam in June next year. “And of course, this is a responsibility of all musicians and conductors especially in positions like mine. It just has to be good music. I don’t want to be premiering bad music.”

What about composing himself? “Surely at some point. Though that’s going to take many years, and I think it will be sort of a hobby, something for myself. Not really for anyone else but just for me.”

Peltokoski performs with pianist Yuja Wang
© Karen van Glist

Is music education an important task for every orchestra? Should orchestras conduct outreach activities? “I don’t know whose responsibility that is. Children should be taught what art is and what culture is and what is life actually about.” He pauses, and then continues: “Orchestras know that when they play film music concerts they always fill the hall. And if they play Turangalîla the hall is half-empty. That’s very unfortunate, but people are just not educated enough if it comes to that.”

So how does he feel conducting the programme in September in Rotterdam, with the film music of Vertigo and Star Wars, plus Wagner and Kodály? “And Korngold! I have to say I didn’t choose Star Wars – but I chose Vertigo though. I think it’s wonderful! I’m not saying Star Wars is not wonderful – of course I like Star Wars, who doesn’t? But to play it in concert, it does make it a different sort of occasion. That is why it’s paired with Herrmann and Korngold.” The Korngold Violin Concerto will be performed by Simone Lamsma.

“But very seriously: a situation should be avoided where orchestras only play film music. That is not happening any time soon. But if the only way to fill the halls is that then, in a bad world… People just have to think about what is important and what not. It is a very good question how to make them do that. I don’t have the answer. If I did I would probably  bedoing something else.”

Esa-Pekka Salonen, one of Peltokoski’s teachers, has been chief conductor in Los Angeles, where the orchestra plays film music all summer long.

“Esa-Pekka is a very special figure. He started of as a kind of real Western intellectual. As a young man he was a hardcore thinker and radical modernist in every sort of way. And now he has become Americanised and does cool things. Nothing wrong with that, but he has just changed a little!” Peltokoski laughs.

“And yes, his programming has always worked. Because somehow when you get people to come and hear things like Esa-Pekka’s music, or a bunch of Stravinsky obscurities in one night, of course that’s great – people need to hear those kinds of things. What I am almost against is – and sometimes it is nearly inescapable – but what I really don’t like is just playing basic works. I am in favour of interesting programs,” Peltokoski says. “If the only reason to put together a program is to sell it, like Beethoven 5 in the first half and Dvorak 9 in the second – why would anyone want to hear that? I don’t want to do that!” He laughs nearly apologetically.

Tarmo Peltokoski
© Peter Rigaud

I ask about his teachers. Who has been the most important? “Well, of course, Panula.”

Peltokoski began studying with renowned Finnish conductor and conducting teacher Jorma Panula at the early age of 14. A prolific mentor to young conductors, his former students include Sakari Oramo, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Hannu Lintu, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, among others. “He was the original one for all of us. He is the one without whom any of these names would not exist. Sakari Oramo was my professor at the Sibelius Academy before I dropped out and told the bureaucrats to, you know, go somewhere… And Hannu Lintu has become a very important mentor for me in every way.”

I finish by asking a little about how he spends his spare time. “These are things I am still figuring out,” Peltokoski says. “I am learning how to do this thing. It’s a very long marathon, I hope, if I don’t die or decide to become a pilot… I have yet to learn that exercise is very important. At my age you don’t really need it. But I know that I will eventually! I know I will!”

The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and
Tarmo Peltokoski perform Herrmann, Williams and Korngold with Simone Lamsma on 15th & 17th September, and Strauss and Bartók with Yuja Wang on 2nd, 3rd & 5th November.

This interview was sponsored by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra