Ideas of North: Hannu Lintu is a real road warrior for music

Hannu Lintu. Photo by Veikko Kähkönen

Hannu Lintu doesn’t mind travelling, not at all. The chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra was in Dallas when he spoke about the relief he feels to be away from Helsinki, Finland, his hometown.

Don’t get him wring. He likes Helsinki and he loves his work but “when I am in Helsinki, with my own orchestra, it means I don’t have much time to study anything because I have lots of meetings, rehearsals and interviews.

“When I am travelling I am sort of resting.”

Sort of might be the operative phrase. After conducting four concerts in Texas he jetted home to teach his class at the Sibelius Academy. His next stop is Ottawa for a concert conducted the NAC Orchestra and his friend Angela Hewitt in a performance of Matthew Whittall’s Nameless Seas and two pieces by Sibelius on Oct. 5. Next stop after that … Singapore.

“I know this doesn’t make much sense but why slow down. I still like travelling. I like hotels and airports and airplanes.”

In fact when we spoke he was perusing Whittall’s piece.

“I love it. I have commissioned one piece from him for the Finnish Radio Symphony. I premiered it myself. I have also premiered a song cycle by him for the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra that was five years ago. I have always loved his music. It has this mixture of approachability and complexity which I think is always very fruitful combination.

“Accessibility doesn’t necessarily mean easy. But it speaks to audiences. Everybody can hear different things. It’s not very complex music. It’s easy to read. He doesn’t deliberately want to be complex nor does he show off. It’s composed by a musician (Whittall plays french horn) which orchestra musicians recognize as well.”

Lintu has been a regular guest with the NAC and he knows Canada well. With a festival exploring the connections and cultures of two northern nations what does he see?

“If I compare Canada to the U.S., I certainly feel more at home in Canada. I feel that we have the same vocabulary. We share this fascination for nature and the sea and things like that. We are less urban in a way. We might live in a city and love the city but we also still are country people.”

Lintu was born in a small city on the west coast of Finland where the sea was ever present.

“I used to sail when I was a boy. The sea has always been a very important aspect on my life. That’s why I live in Helsinki, because it’s by the sea.”

One of the Sibelius pieces being performed is the Oceanides.

“I don’t think Sibelius would have known that word. In Finnish it’s Aallottaret. Its intention is clear. It is about water and waves and representing something so elemental.

“The piece is very enigmatic. It’s very short. I think it is an episode. … It’s surreal somehow. It’s like one of those small courses they serve at a restaurant, an amuse bouche. … Imagine walking into a room looking at a painting for several minutes and then leaving the room. The painting stays in your mind, affecting you and you don’t really realize it.”

Sibelius has had a couple of anniversaries recently including the 150th of his birth in 2015 and 60th of his death this year. Orchestras around the world have been playing his music. During the Ideas of North, a sizeable chunk of Sibelius repertoire will be played including several symphonies.

For Lintu, Sibelius has a well-earned place on the world stage but is he a sort of patron saint for Finns?

“For a certain generation. For younger Finns, I wouldn’t say so.

“Everyone recognizes that he was a central figure in the nation’s fight for independence (a century ago). Censorship was hard then and it was practically impossible to say things. It was practically impossible to write things so music was an essential vehicle. It can express feelings without words.

“Censorship couldn’t touch that. Kids learn about this in school. They know the arts were a significant part of Finland’s becoming independent.

“During the Second World War, Sibelius was definitely the most famous Finn and he probably still is the most famous. Of course, there are hockey players and Formula One drivers and there are extraordinary minds. But especially during the war he was the symbol and face of Finland abroad.”

There is now a contest to determine the greatest Finn of the past 100 years. The result will be announced on Dec. 6 (the nation’s independence day).

“It will be interesting to see what the result of it is. In modern Finnish society, everybody knows about Sibelius, but I don’t think he’s a saint.”

Lintu says he puts Sibelius in another rank.

“I would like to think of him as part of the western symphonic canon. That’s what he wanted to be himself.

“I see him in a chain that started with Beethoven. They worked same way. I very seldom think of Finland when I conduct his music. I know his music quite well I know Beethoven quite well.”

As he conducts it so much, he has favourite pieces. While he likes the Second Symphony, he prefers the less well known Sixth. But he’s conducting No. 2 in Ottawa.

“I conduct it everywhere. It’s probably the piece I have conducted the most. I still love it a lot, but whenever I have a chance to suggest a piece I suggest No. 6 or 7 (NACO’s Alexander Shelley will lead No. 7). Six is my favourite. It is his most beautiful and most ingenious.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to follow North American programming. They are always worried when there is something contemporary on the program and they always want to compensate. That’s something we don’t have to do in Europe.

In Dallas he conducted the famous Finlandia in four concerts.

“You can imagine that is a piece I have done even more than the Second Symphony.

“It’s certainly a great piece and worth playing no matter how many times you have played it. I don’t object anymore when I’m asked to play Finlandia or Sibelius No. 2. I’m doing same in Tokyo. But it would be great if orchestras in North American had courage to play the lesser known symphonies.”

Even so, he says, he’s always finding something new whenever he returns to these familiar pieces.

“Sometimes I find details I have never noticed before. There is something in Sibelius. It’a about the texture, it’s about how Sibelius composed, there are so many layers and each time is different. He is not a classical composer he is a late Romantic and I would even say he is the first Finnish modernist.

“So if you are late Romantic and a modernist it means your scores are full of details and you always find something new.”

Support for classical music is different in Europe including in Finland, he says. It allows for more  new works to be commissioned and performed.

“Sometimes I think in Europe financing is automatic. It’s a machine. They just feed us with money.

“We feel we should actually we should take an even bigger responsibility to play things that haven’t been played much and introducing new composers or those who have been forgotten. That is part of my job with the Finnish Broadcasting Company. ”

Lintu’s relationship with Hewitt began about eight years ago when he first conducted her in Liverpool, England.

Since then they have worked together fairly regularly. In fact he was in Ottawa working on a CD with her.

“She was just in Helsinki four weeks ago on her way to Lapland and she spent the weekend at my place in Helisinki.

“She was practicing Nameless Seas. Matthew came over and we talked about the piece. We are in touch all the time.”

Lintu enjoys the musical friendship.

“If you know someone, the process, especially the rehearsing process, is easier. It is easier to discuss things. It can create complications because even old friends can quarrel.

“I realize I am becoming old, but I like to play with soloists I know. I very seldom want to meet a new one.”

Lintu and Hewitt
Ideas of North Festival
Where: Southam Hall
When: Oct. 5 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.