When you mention the term “Finnish conducting school”, no doubt the first thing to come to mind are the Finnish conductors of nearly legendary status such as Paavo Berglung (1929–2012), Leif Segerstam (b. 1944), Okko Kamu (b. 1946) or Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958). Finns seem to be disproportionately well represented in the world of conducting and perhaps only Estonia, our southern neighbour, has more well-known international orchestra conductors per capita! But what is meant by the Finnish conducting school, and does such a thing exist?
The question of Finnish conducting school could be viewed in three different ways. The first way is to understand the Finnish conducting school as synonymous with the Finnish conducting tradition, which goes back all the way to the year 1882 when the young composer and violinist Robert Kajanus (1856–1933) founded the orchestra of the Helsinki Philharmonic Society. Those days a special education for orchestra conductors did not yet exist anywhere in the world, so most conductors were composers by their way of education. Thus, also Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) belongs in this tradition of Finnish conductors since he was making a career out of performing his music with orchestras around Europe and the United States.
Robert Kajanus had also his own nemesis in the Finnish orchestra scene, Georg Schnéevoigt (1872–1947), who rose through the ranks of Kajanus’ orchestra as a cellist until he started his own rival orchestra the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra in 1912. In 1914 the two orchestras were combined, and chief conductor duties shared between the two rivals. At his time Schnéevoigt was described as a virtuoso of the baton in a marked contrast to the more reserved conducting style of Kajanus, and this dichotomy has characterised the Finnish conducting scene since. In the later generations we talk about the “apollonian” Paavo Berglund vs. “dionysian” Leif Segerstam, and the drill-sergeant-like attention to detail of Osmo Vänskä (b. 1953) has been contrasted to Okko Kamu’s quest of finding the big picture and letting the players take care of the details.
The second way of looking at the question of Finnish conducting school is to look at the lineage of Finnish conducting pedagogues and the history of Sibelius Academy, where the younger generation of Finnish conductors has studied almost without exception. The Sibelius Academy conducting class was founded in 1943 and its first teacher was Jussi Jalas (1908–1985). He was followed by Leo Funtek (1885–1965) who introduced a small rehearsal ensemble in conductor training – the model which is followed even today in Finland. The status of the conducting class was upgraded in 1973, when Jorma Panula (b. 1930) was appointed a full professor. He made the rehearsal ensemble larger and started using videotaping the orchestra sessions as a training tool. He also invited guest teachers such as Arvid Jansons (1914–1984), Ádám Fischer (b. 1949) and Ilya Musin (1904–1999) to complement his own teaching. Many successful Finnish conductors studied with Panula, including Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste (b. 1956) and Osmo Vänskä. After Panula other notable conducting pedagogues have held the professorship, such as Eri Klas (1939–2016) and Leif Segerstam. They have in turn had their string of successful students, like Mikko Franck (b.1979), Hannu Lintu (b. 1967), Susanna Mälkki (b. 1969) and Pietari Inkinen (b. 1980).
The third way to look at this term is on the level of conducting practice. Is there something special the Finnish conductors do technically, or in rehearsal? Technically most Finnish conductors look different from each other since there has not been a solid single teaching tradition of conducting technique at the Sibelius Academy. You could best describe the technical instruction at the Sibelius Academy as “east meets west”. Panula’s influences were among others Dean Dixon (1915–1976) and Franco Ferrara (1911–1985), whereas Leif Segerstam studied with the French conductor Jean Morel (1903–1975) at Juilliard. At the same time the Russian/Soviet influence has been strong through the frequent teaching visits by Arvid Jansons in the 1970s and Ilya Musin in the 1990s. Because of this variety of influences every conducting student has been able to build their own set of technical tools according to their understanding, personality, and taste.
When the Finnish conductors have themselves been asked, what are the characteristics of the Finnish conducting school, the answers are often along the lines “avoiding unnecessary talking in rehearsal”, “being a versatile musician”, “emphasising teamwork” (vs. old fashioned authoritarian leadership) or “making chamber music”. For most Finnish conductors it also stays true that they learned to play in an orchestra before they embarked on their conducting careers. Perhaps the trademark of most Finnish conductors is simply being practical and to the point? So far, seeing a “Finnish conductor” in the concert poster has been kind of a stamp of quality. Will it continue to be so in the future remains to be seen.