Sakari Oramo was meant to be a violinist. Luckily for us this career path was knocked off-course when he stood in at the Finnish Radio Symphony, where he’d been working as concertmaster. Now he’s known as the conductor who’s taken Elgar beyond English parochialism, taken new approaches to Sibelius and championed underappreciated composers like John Foulds and Karol Szymanowski. These days he is Chief Conductor of both the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, one of our partners for Bachtrack At Home. Our editor Mark Pullinger caught up with him to discuss the essence of Nielsen, his own avuncular style and more.

MP: How did you make the transition from violin into being a conductor, and how difficult was that?

SO: I studied conducting at the same time as I had my leader’s job. I was in Jorma Panula’s class and did an exam at the end of the three years’ study, thinking that it was going to be a hobby or a side-step from my professional career. But then in 1993 there was an opportunity to jump in for a sick conductor with the Finnish Radio Symphony. That orchestra has always educated its own conductors – most of the chief conductors have have played in the orchestra before – so transition isn’t unusual there. It was actually very natural to jump in, and then shortly afterwards to be called to be the resident house conductor of the orchestra.

You’re now head of the BBC Symphony and the RSPO. What are the differences in working with them?

The Stockholm Philharmonic is a municipal orchestra, supported by the city of Stockholm and various other Swedish entities, so it has a different role from the BBCSO. Stockholm Phil occupies a concert hall owned by the foundations supporting it, so there’s complete freedom in using the hall as a rehearsal space. An orchestra always rehearsing in the hall where they perform makes for a different kind of approach, because you’ll not only rehearse the music and the players but also the space. And it’s a very welcoming, inviting, beautiful shoebox-shaped concert hall from the 1920s.

Very different to the Barbican.

A totally different period, school and style. BBC Symphony normally rehearses at Maida Vale and only plays in the Barbican on the day of the concert, which is practically fine, but there is always a feeling of transitioning from one space, which is very different, to another. There are plans to change that in London, but when that will come to fruition is a different thing. Yet the BBC Symphony serves its purpose of being a public service brilliantly because it gives so many different groups of people the possibility to access high-quality classical music. The Stockholm Phil serves similar functions because they do a lot of school concerts as a part of their agreement with the local authority. Also, both orchestras have a really wide repertoire.

The BBCSO has a famously wide repertoire. A lot of international conductors say that British orchestras are remarkable in being able to pick up things very quickly and need much less rehearsal. Is this something that you recognise?

To a certain extent yes, but I think to get into any depth with music you still need rehearsal time, even though you might be able to play the notes correctly. So there’s a slight difference in what the people who say that [British orchestras need less rehearsal] are looking for. They look for a correct performance of notes, whereas I’m not really interested in that. I’m more interested in looking for something special in the interpretation, some depth, and a coming together from the personality of the orchestra together with my input. But I’m really happy to say that I get a good amount of rehearsal time with the BBCSO, for almost all programmes we do.

What are the main changes that you’ve seen in the RSPO over the last decade?

They’ve always had dedication, that’s never been a problem, but I’ve tried to focus their energies into the right things. That was my brief when I started and I feel it’s gone in the right direction, especially in the last couple of years. I’ve also felt it in the audience – in how they actually turn up in our concerts and also in the way they react. There is this old-fashioned sense of being lifted by concerts which I find really rewarding.

I always think you have a very avuncular style of conducting. There’s lots of smiling going on. Is this something you’ve always had, or have you changed your conducting technique over the years?

No, I don’t think so. Of course all that comes straight from the personality and I wouldn’t say it’s a part of the technique. It’s a part of the interaction between the players and the conductor. If I feel happy about something that happens in the orchestra then I absolutely reveal it by smiling, I don’t try to stop myself. I feel myself very much as one of the musicians, a kind of primus inter pares, with my knowledge about the music that has to be more than the musicians have. I’m leading from the front, not from above.

Going back to your time in Birmingham, you’ve conducted a lot of Elgar, and in our video archive from Stockholm we’ve got your Cockaigne. Do you feel that the perception of Elgar outside the UK has changed in the years since you started conducting?

Not really...

We’ve still got work to do!

I think so. Of course it’s funny that Elgar got his first big successes outside the UK, in Germany, where Richard Strauss conducted his works and they were good pals. Then something happened, maybe politically, but the German culture – which is still the central classical culture in Europe – invented a self-imposed position of being the top of the hierarchy of all art and all music, and of course composers who don’t fit into the Austro-German mould suffer as a result.

I think slightly the same has happened to Sibelius as well, but Sibelius is more appreciated in Britain than Elgar is in Finland. I’ve tried to do quite a lot in my years in Finland to improve that, and maybe to some extent succeeded. But these things take time. Recording the two Elgar symphonies with the Stockholm Philharmonic some years ago was a huge undertaking because the music wasn’t really well-known to the orchestra.

How did they take to it?

We took a lot of time, not so much using the rehearsals for just playing the notes; I really tried to makes them understand and go deep into this English mood that is very much present in that music.

Talking of Sibelius you’ve recently finished your BBCSO cycle here at the Barbican. He’s obviously a composer that you closely identify with.

He certainly is. I’ve thought of why that is many times, and I think it’s just because I’ve been exposed to that material for such a long time. It’s not because I’m Finnish, directly. I don’t think there’s much Finnishness in Sibelius’ music that people who are not Finnish could not understand just as well as Finnish people. It’s more the exposure to the material that makes you relate to the music, because it has so much detail. You need to integrate into the whole; it doesn’t work by pulling out details. It’s rather enveloping everything into the single mould and stream of music. For that you need to approach the music from above, seeing it as a whole, rather than bar by bar.  

Another composer that you’re particularly identified with is Carl Nielsen. We have a lovely film of you doing the Second Symphony in our archive. Could you tell us a little about your relationship with Nielsen?

Nielsen has a very long relationship with Stockholm Concert Hall and the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, because some of the very first recordings with Tor Mann were made here in Stockholm. So there is a tradition of playing Nielsen which is maybe different from the Danish tradition – at least, there is a perceived contest between Stockholm and Copenhagen, which one does Nielsen more and better. Of course we think we do it much better than they do!

It’s an acquired love for me, but I’ve come to very much appreciate the whole cycle. The reason why Nielsen hasn’t been quite as globally popular as Sibelius is maybe that for conductors, Nielsen poses the challenge of having to forget yourself, because his music is so strongly constructed that there’s very little room for a conductor’s ego. You need to give it energy and character, but then you have to stop there. You can’t start improvising or putting the musical parameters in a different order. And you can with Sibelius, whose music allows a very large scope of interpretation and still works. With Nielsen it’s also like conducting Haydn, you have to be absolutely in the core and essence of the music.

I feel that with Nielsen, all six symphonies are so different to each other.

Indeed. Going from the first which is almost Brahmsian in parts, but still already very novel in the very first bar. It’s always this very sudden, almost cinematic clipping, where he changes mood in the smallest amount of time.

Great impetuosity.

Yes, very effortless as well. My favourite of the six has actually come to be the Sixth. I find it so incredibly courageous to write a piece like that, because it’s a middle finger to the music business, basically. He was really showing off his brilliance in that piece, but then finishing with a big laugh.

Another composer who you conduct is Szymanowski. I think previously you did the Six songs for a fairytale princess with your wife, and you’ve said that’s an underperformed piece. What is it about Szymanowski that makes him special?

It’s terribly underperformed, and of course only three of those songs exist in Szymanowski’s orchestrations. I’ve done the three other ones so it becomes a complete cycle. But talking more generally about Szymanowski, I saw a recent performance of his opera King Roger in Rome. It just struck me how many barriers there were because of the language. Many people find the Polish language difficult to sing, let alone to understand and to relate to. It’s a very beautiful language, sung properly. Maybe another thing in Szymanowski’s production, apart from the opera, is a slight lack of the big blockbuster pieces that could fill the second half of a concert. There are beautiful concertos, the Violin Concerto, or the “Symphonie-Concertante” which has a piano obligato that’s like a concerto, basically. But of course the Third Symphony, “Song of the Night” is large, and it’s very effective, but it still doesn’t quite fill that wish of conductors and perceived wish of audiences to have a big, beefy piece in the second half. It all stays on this kind of hovering-slightly-above-surface, maybe having taken some illegal substances, strong atmosphere. It’s incredibly effective, but you don’t easily come to decide on doing a Szymanowski piece.

Watch Sakari Oramo on Bachtrack At Home, or catch him live