Music requires space and presence
Photo by Peter Rigaud
Published in the magazine IR on 19 May
Text by Edīte Tišheizere
Translated by Santa Elīna Kauliņa
Music requires space and presence
Tarmo Peltokoski, the newly appointed Music and Artistic Director of Latvian National Symphony Orchestra (LNSO), is 22 years old, has a strong musical vision and a clear sense of what he wants to achieve in the next three years
Tarmo Peltokoski is incredibly young and very... mature. The focus and attention he displays towards his interlocutor are quite fascinating. Whenever a question starts forming in my mind, his reaction is instantaneous. It is easy to imagine him following every musician in the orchestra with the same focused attention, keeping everyone within reach. This could be one of the reasons why all the leading artists of the orchestra unanimously wanted Tarmo Peltokoski to be the next Music and Artistic Director.
Indra Lūkina, General Manager of the LNSO, confirms: "The musicians took an immediate liking to Tarmo. He worked here in January, and the first impulses to keep him came from the orchestra already on the second day of rehearsals. He literally took everyone under his spell with his musicality, humane attitude, and the way he led the orchestra. It is rare that everybody wants to work with a conductor. The interpretation of Jean Sibelius' Symphony no. 1 in the January concert was fantastic.
Logic alone cannot explain his influence. He has some indescribable quality, perhaps it could be called mesmerism. He captivates and carries with him both musicians and listeners."
Tarmo Peltokoski – we will have to make note of this complicated name. "Attention, a genius!" is what the French press wrote about him last year after the conductor’s successful debut with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. At his age, Peltokoski has already worked with some of the world's leading orchestras with more important debuts on the way, namely, with the Rheingau Musik Festival, Schleswig‑Holstein Musik Festival, Beethovenfest Bonn, Cologne Philharmonie, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Konzerthaus Orchester Berlin, Rundfunk‑Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Rotterdam Philharmonisch Orkest, and the Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse. Peltokoski will conduct his first Ring of the Nibelung cycle at the Eurajoki Bel Canto Festival in Finland. It was precisely Richard Wagner and his music Tarmo heard as a child that inspired him to become a conductor.
Surprisingly, Tarmo Peltokoski was not born into a family of musicians, he made all the decisions on his own, which includes taking up the piano at the age of eight. Besides, he has not only Finnish, but also Filipino ancestry.
After an hour‑long conversation, it feels as if I have touched a taut bowstring. The vibration and the deep calm preceding the release of an arrow – maybe that is the very essence of talent.
Your decision to become a conductor came at such a young age. How did you come to it?
I discovered the music of Wagner at age of 11 and went crazy about it. I listened to and studied his scores, which are enormous: The Valkyrie has 700 pages.
Parsifal has more, does it not?
Actually, no. The opera is longer, but the score has fewer pages because it is slower than The Valkyrie. At school, they thought I was mad. I have played the piano since the age of eight…
Do you come from a family of musicians?
No, my parents are not musicians. It was my decision. So, I discovered Wagner and tried to play his scores. Despite my efforts, they did not sound as they should. Then, I figured out – if I want to produce this music, I should be a conductor. Of course, for an 11 or 12-year-old, it is a crazy idea. It would be impossible anywhere else in the world, but, luckily, I am Finnish. We have a legendary conductor and teacher Jorma Panula, who occasionally works with young musicians.
How young is that? How old were you when you started your conducting studies?
I was 14, but a friend and colleague of mine started at the age of 12. Just because of Panula. He is currently 92 and is still teaching. His first students, including Esa-Pekka Salonen, continue Panula’s work. They continuously produce young Finnish conductors. That is exceptional because, outside Finland, conducting studies are not available as early. If I were a pianist in Germany, I would have to become a repetitor first, then a kapellmeister. When I finally got to conducting, I could be 40, or even older.
And be a young conductor in his forties.
Yes! However, at the age of 14, I did not start my studies that seriously because, at the early stage, conducting is quite tricky and hard.
Yes. [Laughs] But most importantly, you have to coordinate what you hear with what you show. Practice is very important in conducting.
I took it up more seriously when I was 16. Next, I entered the Sibelius Academy at 18. I am not studying anymore, because this year I was named the Principal Guest Conductor of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, and now the Music and Artistic Director of the LNSO.
Do you remember your first strong musical impression?
I do not… I just know that I have always felt strongly about music. Classical music. Mostly it was Wagner, then opera: all Puccini, late Verdi, Shostakovich, Strauss. Mahler.
I have heard that there has to be a special chemistry between the orchestra and the conductor. What does it involve? Why did you choose the LNSO?
I do not know. [Laughs] They chose me for a reason and I accepted because I thought that career-wise it would be best to have my own orchestra to perform a repertoire that matches my needs and those of the orchestra, too.
Actually, I am lucky enough to have two orchestras – the one in Bremen as well. It is a touring orchestra, so we always tailor our concerts for different venues. When in Vienna, we perform works liked by the Viennese. With the Bremen orchestra, we mostly play Mozart and Beethoven, I am eager to bring some Sibelius, too. Nevertheless, I am not the music director. As the Principal Guest Conductor, I make suggestions, of course, but I do not have the final say. They are a rather small orchestra, so we cannot perform works like the Leningrad Symphony by Shostakovich.
Would you like to, though?
Yes! In Riga, it will be different. The core of this orchestra’s repertoire is Russian music, we have already performed Rachmaninoff together. Currently, we are coordinating our plans. I feel the closest to major German repertoire – Wagner, Richard Strauss, a lot of Strauss! I will also bring Finnish contemporary music – Kaija Saariaho and others. And, of course, we will perform works by Latvian composers.
Indra Lūkina, General Manager of the LNSO, said that you have a very clear vision for the next three years.
Yes, because I have a contract for three years, and I really want to have a clear plan to know where I am at my 25.
Where will you live for these three years – in Riga or maybe in Bremen?
I will live in Helsinki. It is very close and there are many flights.
How would you explain what a conductor and conducting is to those who know nothing about it?
[Laughs] Well, the wrong answer is: conductor is a metronome or a time-beater. This is only a joke, but Herbert von Karajan has supposedly said that there are only two institutions that need a dictator – an army and an orchestra. This is clearly not true, because I suppose that nobody in an orchestra wants a dictatorship, even, as one of my colleagues put it, ‘civilized dictatorship’. Probably, the best definition has been given by the Hungarian maestro Iván Fischer: he said that the conductor is the guardian of unity. Because an orchestra consists of many people and they are all professional, talented, passionate musicians. And they can play together – they have ears and an understanding of how they can fit together. But if they cannot come to an agreement, it will not work.
An orchestra cannot be entirely democratic either. Therefore, the conductor is there to make sure that there is an agreement about the direction to take. The time-beating is the most visible, but the least important part of it. The musicians can play without that person in front of them waving the baton.
There is another wrong answer: power. Some conductors do it for the power. Not me.
In fact, it is more about exchanging energy with the orchestra, focusing and directing that energy in some direction. The conductor sees the bigger picture and can give more energy to one group of musicians and maybe take it away from another one because he knows, for example, that they will have a big climax in two minutes. Hopefully, I have answered your question.
I recently read a book by the Russian musician Vladimir Zisman, A Guide to the Orchestra and Its Backyards. He compares the orchestra to a large instrument played by the conductor. How do you see the orchestra: as an instrument, a personality, a collective mind?
Well, conductors always say that this orchestra is like this, and that one like that, as if the orchestra had its own personality, which I tend to disagree with. The orchestra consists of individual people. Each of them has a personality and each of them is important.
I do not like the idea about the orchestra being like an instrument either. As a pianist, I can do what I want with the piano if I have the skills, of course. [Laughs] With an orchestra, it is different. There are people, and they are the ones playing music. I am not. The relationship between the conductor and the orchestra is very delicate and sensitive. It is really hard to talk about it.
What is the difference between a soloist and an orchestral musician, if both are high-class professionals?
Well, it is about the amount of control. When I play the piano alone, I have all the control. When we perform chamber music, it is also about listening to others and reacting.
Like in jazz.
Yes! That is why I love jazz. Jazz is creative, jazz is improvised, jazz is alive! I sometimes think that, in classical music, orchestra musicians lack this creativity. An orchestra is a united group of people where no individual has all the control.
This may sound silly, but when you look at sheet music, can you actually hear it?
Yes. If it is Mozart, I can hear everything. In case of Wagner, I can hear most of his motifs, but it takes a while to hear the entire piece. If it is Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, which is quite modern, I really have to concentrate on it. When it comes to an avant-garde score by someone like Bernd Alois Zimmerman, I can only imagine how it sounds.
Let us talk about the music you love. What does an 11-year-old find in Wagner's music?
That I do not know. It is inexplicable, like love at first sight. It so happened that, at the age of 11, I fell in love with Wagner, and the feeling seemed to be mutual. Siegfried is what I heard as a child and it made me absolutely happy. I have no idea why this happened and I may never find the reason.
Now that I have read about and thoroughly studied Wagner, learned his scores, my impression about the composer differs quite significantly from my childhood memories. At this stage of life, his theory of Gesamtkunstwerk, where all art forms – music, text, poetry, visuals, lighting – come together, is of importance to me. Clearly, he had some strange political views, but even these contradictions make Wagner what he is. I am a musician and love Wagner for his music. I would love him even if he had not written a single word. Just for his music.
My favourite piece is, always has been, and always will be Tristan and Isolde. Frankly, I want to do all of Wagner. Parsifal, the Ring, all of them.
You are aspiring to become an opera conductor then.
It has been my lifelong dream. In Germany, a pianist like me would first become a repetitor and start conducting around the age of 35 if I were really lucky. There are 80 opera houses in Germany, and everything revolves around opera, everyone is an opera conductor. In Finland, just like in Latvia, we only have one opera house. Thus, the opera world is more distanced and conducting starts in the symphonic field. I have begun my career as a symphonic conductor, but I want to do opera as much as I can.
Are you planning to collaborate with the Latvian National Opera?
Time will tell. I am here in any case.
Why is Shostakovich so important to you?
For me, Shostakovich is the most notable post-Mahlerian composer. Of course, the direction is different, but Shostakovich is a deeply Russian artist who continues with Mahler’s spirit and tradition. Both of them were tormented, sad men with a lot of agony and almost no happiness in their lives. Yet, they composed the most wonderful, greatest symphonies with a lot of joviality. Today, without knowledge about the composers’ lives, people can mistake their music as happy, comical, and funny, while the reality is the opposite. The joy makes their music even sadder.
What is more, Shostakovich lived so close to our days, he passed away in 1975. His music has a very contemporary feel to it.
May I ask a question about politics?
Yes. But I am not sure I will have an answer.
What is the meaning of music today, when we are literally on the brink of World War III?
Well, wouldn’t people play and listen to music if the war started? I believe they would. In my opinion, playing Shostakovich today is more important than ever. Wouldn’t you agree?
Yes, I would. What do you want to convey to people through the music you play or conduct?
[Pause] To be very honest, I do not play or conduct for the audience. If they want to listen, I am happy. But it is not for them.
Let me draw a parallel with the theatre. In a large-scale play, actors get energy both from the audience and from their partners. Meanwhile, in a one-person play, the audience is their partner and the only energy giver. As a conductor, you interact with the orchestra. How is it for you as a pianist? Where do you get your energy from?
Well, it is not that I completely ignore the audience. There is no doubt that one gets energy from people. During the pandemic, I had some live-streamed concerts, and I hated them. Obviously, musicians have to work to be paid. But it is impossible to listen to music online. Music belongs in the physical space. It requires presence, not a screen or an empty hall.
If one simply wants to listen to music, there are recordings, that is different. Recordings document the level at a certain point in time, although this document can be fake, too. [Laughs]
The concert itself seems to me as one of the most beautiful concepts brought to us by civilisation. Just imagine, a group of people – actually two large groups of people – coming together in a large space, one of them sitting in silence just to hear the music that the others are playing.
5 composers the conductor intends to perform with the LNSO
Born in 2000.
Starts piano lessons at the age of 8.
From 2014, attends masterclasses of the legendary Finnish conductor Jorma Panula.
From 2016, studies conducting. He has currently suspended his studies at the Sibelius Academy.
2018. Named Young Musician of the Year by the Pro Musica Foundation. Winner of national and international awards as a pianist.
2021/2022. Conducts the Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and the Basel Chamber Orchestra.
2022. Becomes the Principal Guest Conductor of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and the Music and Artistic Director of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra.