Ideas of North: John Storgårds finds some of his peace in the strings of his violin

John Storgårds. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

John Storgårds gets nightmares when he doesn’t play his violin very much. Lack of contact with the instrument of his musical life upsets his world seemingly.

He should sleep well this week.

The NAC Orchestra’s principal guest conductor will be showing off the range of his musical chops in the Ideas of North festival that runs until Saturday night when it concludes with Storgårds performing a violin concerto on the Southam Hall stage, conducted by Alexander Shelley.

Storgårds is from Finland and the piece he will play Saturday night, Graal Théâtre, has a special connection to him.

It was written by Kaija Saariaho, one of the major modern composers to emerge out of Finland and she is a friend of Storgårds.

There are two versions of the concerto, one written for solo violin and orchestra and a second version written for a soloist and a smaller chamber orchestra. That second piece was written specially for Storgårds himself. But, on Saturday, he will play the version for a larger ensemble.

“She wrote this violin concerto for (the Latvian violinist) Gidon Kremer. When she was writing this concerto she was living in Paris. I was a little bit involved in the process of writing the concerto. answering questions about technical things. So I knew the piece before it was premiered.

“I was part of playing it as a concertmaster when Kremer was a soloist in Finland.

“Then also Kaaija wanted me to play it as a soloist. So she wrote a new version of it for me and the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra. I did the world premiere of that version it and I have also recorded it.” She has also written a short nocturne that he plays regularly.

He has played both version of Graal Théâtre many times but recently he hasn’t performed it as much because of his schedule.

Still, “it feels like my piece and I love to play it. It has become a big part of my identity as a violin player.”

The connection with Saariaho gives Storgårds a deeper insight into her musical identity.

Of that he says: “Her musical language is very individual. It’s not tonal music but it still has melodic lines and kind of classical dramaturgy in how it is built. So that makes it easy to follow even though it is not tonal.

Saariho is 64 and Storgårds will turn 55 on Oct. 20.

“She is a bit older than me but the first time I played her music she was still a composition student and I was playing in the student orchestra of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. We played a piece by her and already you could hear certain elements in her music that you can still find.

“It is very colourful music.”

They really got to know each other when Storgårds was the concertmaster of the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra.

“In the late 1980s and early ’90s. Avanti! was working with younger Finnish composers and Kaaija was in those circles,” he said.

Storgårds in Ottawa is known more as a conductor. His conducting career began in the mid-1990s and for many years it has been the focus of much of his energy. He has led orchestras across Europe. In 2015 he became only the second principal guest conductor of NACO. Since 1996 he has been the artistic director of the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, which is located in Rovaniemi, Finland on the Arctic Circle, where Storgårds lives with his partner and their children.

All this conducting is great, but, he says, he misses the violin when he is not not playing regularly.

“I get bad feelings. I feel guilty when I don’t practice. I do. It has always been like this. If there is too long a break between playing I start having nightmares about it really. I have all kinds of violin-related nightmares. It’s not good for me.

“I have never really stopped practicing. For some years the conducting career was so hot that during a season, you would rarely see me perform at all. Still I always had the violin with me.”

He practices to stay connected with his instrument and ready to play in public.

“It was a nice surprise to play and make people wonder, ‘Oh, John, you are still in good shape. How is that possible?’

“Surprise, surprise, I enjoyed that too.”

In 2012, another contemporary Finnish composer Kimmo Hakola  wrote a violin concerto for him.

“I had to practice like hell to perform it,” he says. The piece premiered in Cologne, Germany and he’s played it many times since.

“With that, I have really gotten back so totally into practicing. I have been going on in that intensity.”

A happy result has been that people have noticed that he is playing again and that is leading to more and more gigs.

He will often conduct one half of an evening and perform a violin solo after the intermission.

“The essential thing for me is to have enough time to warm up. I won’t conduct an overture, take a two minute break and play a solo any more. I don’t like that.”

For Storgårds playing his violin informs and hones his conducting skills and vice versa.

NACO patrons will remember Pinchas Zukerman conducting NACO while performing a violin or viola solo. Storgårds does this as well. But he chooses his repertoire carefully when he does. The demands of the Saariho piece means it is one that he wouldn’t conduct and play.

He is enjoying being conducted by Alexander Shelley, he says. Given the hectic schedules of international conducting careers, the first rehearsal of Graal Théâtre this week was also the first time Storgårds and Shelley had actually met in person.

It is fitting that they meet in Ottawa as both conductors have fit easily into the Canadian music scene.

For Storgårds there is a certain kind of northern sympatico between Canada and Finland.

“It is easy to be a Finn in Canada. In many ways there is some kind of understanding which is natural. I feel very much at home with Canadian circles.”

John Storgårds in the Ideas of North Festival

Finnish Legends
Where: Southam Hall
When: Oct. 11 at 8 p.m.

Lapland Chamber Orchestra
Where: Southam Hall
When: Oct. 12 at 8 p.m.

Shelley and Storgårds
Where: Southam Hall
When: Oct. 14 at 8 p.m.

Share Post
Written by

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.