If you move in academic, corporate or philanthropic circles, you will certainly have attended speeches and lectures about leadership, or come across relevant literature about it. Well, if you were in the Helsinki Music Center’s Concert Hall at 5pm last Saturday, you’d be sure that attending the previous week’s rehearsals would have saved you the need for leadership books and conferences. I am talking about the fabulous work of trust and respect-building that the five Berliner Philharmoniker players Aleksandar Ivcić, Cristophe Horak, Ulrich Knörzer, Ludwig Quandt and Wenzel Fuchs have carried out with the Tapiola Sinfonietta.

Tapiola Sinfonietta © Sami Perttilä
Tapiola Sinfonietta
© Sami Perttilä

Violinist Aleksandar Ivcić was not reported in the program as conductor, but as concertmaster, in the same way that the other Berlin Phil players were section leaders. Ivcić mentioned in our short chat after the performance that in four days’ time the orchestra had undergone a process of strong involvement and responsibility. There being no conductor, every musician was called to keep eyes and ears wide open for section leaders and other colleagues’ input. Musical authority and responsibility were collectively embraced. The results of this method, not unknown to the Tapiola Sinfonietta, were evident from the very first note of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture.

Back in 1829, the landscape of the Hebrides archipelago impressed Mendelssohn deeply on his trip to Scotland. Writing music like a storyteller, he musically represented his trip to Fingal’s Cave first of all with open, almost Dvořák-like harmonies conveying the endless sea and the sensation of floating on it. Just as well, there are frequent and smooth changes in atmosphere, standing as symbols of the different elements composing an archipelago.

The orchestra succeeded not only in returning the landscape as written by Mendelssohn, but also in transporting the audience there. It is of course not easy to tell exactly how they stimulated such a feeling. My call is that it happened thanks to their relaxed approach to transitions, and to their shared effort in blending sounds and breaths together until they were aligned in a single entity with a clear identity.

They made magic in the next piece too: Weber’s Clarinet Quintet in B flat major, played in an arrangement for clarinet and string orchestra. Mainly active as an opera composer, Weber assigned a character to each instrument in this piece, and a leading role to the clarinet. It was my first time attending a performance by Tapiola Sinfonietta, and I must say that I have never seen a Finnish orchestra interpreting their “characters” as deeply as they did. So deeply that the theatrical attitude extended to their faces as well as their sounds. Sly smiles, serious expressions, playful glances are not usually associated with the calm and reserved Finnish essence.

Just as surprising was Wenzel Fuch’s music-making. On the one hand, it is true that Fuchs kept everyone waiting. He emerged from backstage only five minutes after the orchestra showed readiness to start, because, apparently, he couldn’t find his instrument. It is also true that the piece was interrupted after the first few bars and thereby re-started, for unclear reasons.

But on the other hand, Fuchs’ intense musicality and his long breaths, perfectly tailored to the musical phrases, were stunning. What amazed me even more was the non-invasiveness of his sound. Safe in its warm essence, constant focus and distinctiveness from the strings’ timbre, Fuch’s clarinet is not an arrogant prima donna, but a fun companion to play with, pleasantly filling the hall to the very back.

The characteristic element of the performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 8 in F major was managing tension. The orchestra handled every climax with increasing energy and sensitivity. Beethoven was particularly fond of this symphony, even fonder than he was of his Seventh. I find that one of its most beautiful pearls is the third movement, particularly for its orchestration. The Minuet theme is first proposed by the strings, and repeated by the whole orchestra. Trumpets and bassoon recall the theme as well. Following this exchange and before its reassertion, French horns lead the way to a calm, contrasting trio section, where they alternate with the clarinet.

In this whole picture, the here-and-now music-making and the awareness of the whole symphony’s geography coexisted in the orchestra’s sections and in their leaders, just like in the minds and batons of great conductors. I think that, had he been at the Concert Hall on Saturday, Beethoven would have been a happy spectator.