Don't Talk to the Orchestra!

John Robert Brown

There are only 5.2 million Finnish people, yet the number of successful Finnish orchestral conductors around the globe far exceeds what one would expect from such a small population. To make a list is irresistible: Sakari Oramo, Mikko Franck, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Okko Kamu - one could go on and on. It's almost unbelievable. But that's a roster, not a reason. What is the explanation?

Besides successful careers and considerable musical ability, one thing all of these conductors have in common is their specialist education. All studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. There, from 1973 to 1993 when he retired, the conducting class was taken by Jorma Panula (b.1930). Now, Panula teaches in Sweden and, as a freelance, in many other places across the globe.

Conductor Susanna Mälkki, herself one of this group of successful maestros, believes that Panula's biggest secret - or gift - has been to be able to choose the right people.

"He is very observant concerning how much the students understand about what they are doing," she says, speaking on the phone from Stuttgart, where she is rehearsing the Stuttgart Philharmonic. "Panula's way of teaching is that you do something, then the next day you do the same. He sees if you have changed anything in your own work. At least, that's something I remember from my student time. It's not like just delivering lots of repertory, but actually finding a way to function in a rehearsal. This is something you can't really teach to people."

Mälkki has worked with the BBC Philharmonic, the Tokyo Symphony and the Tokyo Philharmonic orchestras, amongst others. Recent engagements include working with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, the Finnish Radio Symphony and the Northern Sinfonia.

So, is there a Panula secret?

"Panula's secret method is that he's helping you find your own way," she says. "It has to be natural for the person who is there standing in front of the orchestra. So there is no standard solution."

But is there a framework, are there some guidelines, some favourite approaches?

"Yes, absolutely. He could hand pick the students. There was an audition every year. Only two or three people were chosen for the class. When I was there, it was 12 students altogether. I was older, 25 or 26 when I entered the class. Usually people enter before they are 30," she says. "Panula's opinion is that you need to have experience in playing, so that you know how it feels to be conducted. I'm a cellist. I've played professionally in an orchestra. I was the principal in the Gothenburg Symphony for three years."

Maybe success in front of an orchestra also has something to do with the Finnish temperament? "We Finns need to be very stubborn to survive in the world, because we are so few," says Mälkki.

Anu Konttinen, a Musicology Researcher in Helsinki, has looked carefully at what Panula has achieved. Konttinen points out the highly selective nature of the Finnish approach: "The Finnish system of educating conductors admits only professionally trained musicians - instrumentalists and composers - to the Sibelius Academy conducting class," she says. "Not everyone has fitted in to the small group of students working very intensively together at the class, nor ended up working as professional conductors. With some, this has led to criticism towards the system, and has divided opinions."

Thus, if there is a secret ingredient in the way that Finnish conductors are prepared, maybe Jorma Panula himself can provide the answer?

"We have no secret," he says, insisting that he runs an open house.

"Everyone can come to my teaching. We have auditions once a year. I conceived my methods by instinct. I'm a musician, on violin, piano and organ. I play in the orchestra, so I know what the musicians need." Like so many innovators, Panula found his own solution. "We had nothing before me. The chief conductor of the Opera taught me. He was a very good teacher, whom I appreciated. So I did it in the same way."

How does he select students?

"They have to play their own instrument, very briefly. Two minutes is long enough to tell if they can use a violin. I prefer string players, because in the orchestra the strings are the most important - though of course, wind players are acceptable. Then they do some dictation, see if they can pick up some wrong notes being played.

Afterwards we have a classical work, the first movement of a Viennese Classical work maybe, something like that, to rehearse. We have a student orchestra. 'Please rehearse this is a normal way', I ask. They receive the score one month before the audition, so they know it. Ten or fifteen minutes. The second round is like prima-vista, without stopping, playing as though in a concert, quite easy."

Are students expected to be multilingual?

He answers enigmatically, saying 'no problems'. Perhaps it's a silly question? Certainly one hears beautiful spoken English from the younger generations in Helsinki. However, Panula has strong views about speech on the podium. 'Please, don't talk!' he tells the students. "Don't talk to the orchestra. Hands are our language. It's a body language, not a spoken language," he says. "Orchestras hate conductors who speak a lot. Use your hands, your body only. But not clapping or dancing, like Bernstein. I don't approve of that." Still wanting to know more about exactly how he achieves his excellent results, I press Panula further. For instance, in his lessons, does he use videotape or DVD to allow students to see themselves?

"I use video recordings all the time. It's very important. In the 1960s, when the video machines came out, I used one immediately. For forty years I've done this. Student conductors can see all the faults they make."

Jorma Panula has been invited to come to Britain to be one of the judges in the 2005 Leeds Conductors' Competition. What are his views of such contests?

"A competition gives an opportunity to conduct a professional orchestra," he says. "But frequently the judging isn't done the right way. It depends who's sitting in judgement. Many conductors cannot see the essential things. It's like a lottery - but it's an opportunity to conduct an orchestra. This is more important than money or a prize."

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This article first appeared in Classical Music magazine. Used by kind permission.
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