Dalia Stasevksa on conducting the First and Last Nights of the Proms

After negotiating the tricky task of conducting 2020’s audience-free Last Night of the Proms with flying colours, Dalia Stasevska has been welcomed back to lead the First Night in this year’s festival. She talks to Richard Morrison about this year's BBC Proms

Dalia_CREDIT_Jarmo Katila

While some far more established conductors are still trying to pick up the threads of their Covid-shredded careers, Dalia Stasevska will be carrying on this summer just where she left off last year. Having conducted the Last Night of the Proms back in September – probably the most challenging assignment entrusted to any conductor in 2020, for many reasons – the 36-year-old Ukrainian-born Finn will conduct the First Night of this year’s BBC Proms, on 30 July.

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If that isn’t enough pressure, she also conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra (of which she is principal guest conductor) in the opening concert of the Edinburgh International Festival just over a week later. And to round off her relaxing summer, she will then return to Finland to conduct her first concert as the newly appointed chief conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

And there’s more. Dalia Stasevska has a guest-conducting schedule that seems to embrace several continents simultaneously. She describes it as ‘like being on a speed-dating app: you see the picture and then you meet!’. This year alone she makes her debut with orchestras in Montreal, Toronto, Paris, Brussels, Bergen and Hong Kong, as well as conducting Renée Fleming’s production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte in Washington DC. ‘I love music to death,’ she says – her face beaming down the Zoom connection from (I think) Spain. ‘I love travel, I love seeing the world, I love cooking, I love life. It’s a fantastic, playful journey. You just need to go full speed at it.’

Stasevska radiates tremendous enthusiasm, but also an unmistakable aura of steely determination, a classic trait of those who have experienced being uprooted early in life. She certainly needed that determination to cope with the pressures of conducting last summer’s Last Night of the Proms. Right up to a few days before the concert a controversy had raged over whether ‘Rule, Britannia’ would be included – and if so, if its imperialistic, 18th-century words would be sung. The issue became a kind of culture war in its own right, reflecting a wider clash between ‘woke’ liberals and die-hard traditionalists. And politicians of all hues – up to and including Boris Johnson and Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary – felt the need to give us their tuppence-worth of wisdom on the subject.

At one stage Stasevska herself was wrongly accused by some in the press of raising doubts over whether ‘Rule, Britannia’ should be included – accusations that her agent says caused her and her family much distress. What should have been an uncomplicated celebration – especially with a woman conducting the Last Night for only the third time (after Marin Alsop in 2013 and ’15) – must have been freighted with stress.

Nine months on, Stasevska seems able to take a surprisingly sanguine view of what happened. ‘It was a unique situation, but I always try to look at the positive side,’ she says. And that, in her eyes, was the way the musicians coped with the other hugely disorientating aspect of that concert, and indeed of all last summer’s Proms: that was the absence of any audience in the Royal Albert Hall and the requirement, imposed by government regulations, to spread the performers over a wide area of this vast venue. The BBC Singers, for instance, were scattered around the stalls, while the orchestral players sat metres apart from each other on the platform.

‘I am so proud of the BBC and the orchestra and singers that we made music at all in these circumstances, and that we made such a wonderful evening out of it,’ Stasevska says. ‘Don’t forget, too, that for some of the musicians it was their first time performing after a long break, and it had to be done live to millions of television viewers. Then there were the distances involved between us. I don’t know if many people realise how difficult it is to keep together when the sound is travelling from miles away, especially when the Albert Hall has no audience to dampen the acoustic.’

So despite all the political and logistical turmoil surrounding the event, does Stasevska look back on it with pleasure? ‘It felt like a victory!’ she exclaims. ‘It’s something I will remember vividly for the rest of my life. It felt that, for one evening, we could pause the time, put the pandemic on hold, and bring joy to people in their homes.  And when I was told how many people were watching it around the world, I realised this is what music is all about. Communicating joy.’

Would she like to do another Last Night of the Proms, this time with the Albert Hall packed with people and flags and inflatable bananas? She breaks into a broad grin. ‘We shall see!’ she says, in the tone of someone with a secret to keep.

What this strange Last Night did show was how well the Finn has bonded with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. That’s all the more remarkable when you consider that she conducted the band for the first time only three years ago. ‘I did two studio concerts and it was fantastic; we really clicked,’ she recalls. ‘I was amazed at how quick they were to understand what I wanted. And the sound they produced was amazing – the best I have ever experienced from the conducting podium. I couldn’t believe my ears.’

Never afraid of a challenge, Stasevska guides the BBC players through two premieres at the Proms and at Edinburgh. For the First Night of the Proms – this time in front of a live audience – she conducts a new piece by James MacMillan, as well as Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music and Poulenc’s Organ Concerto (with Daniel Hyde, the newish director of music at King’s College, Cambridge, as the soloist).

To open the Edinburgh International Festival, she and the orchestra will premiere Anna Clyne’s new PIVOT. ‘I can’t tell you anything about either piece because they are still being written,’ she explains. ‘But I love doing new music, so it will be very exciting.’ And to round off a trio of premieres by British composers, her first concert as chief conductor in Lahti will include a new orchestration of Nautilus by Anna Meredith (‘I’m a huge fan’).

That selection reflects Stasevska’s attitude to repertoire generally, which is questing and eclectic in its willingness to embrace voices from many different traditions, pop and classical. One might even say, facetiously, that this eclecticism extends to her choice of husband – Lauri Porra, who is probably best known as the bass guitarist of the veteran Finnish power metal band Stratovarius, but is also the great-grandson of Finland’s greatest composer, Jean Sibelius. Stasevska laughs when I mention this, but then pointedly adds: ‘Just as inspiring is the fact that my mother-in-law, 40 years ago, was the first woman woodwind player to be given a job with a Finnish orchestra, when she joined the orchestra at Helsinki Opera.’

The seemingly limitless range to Stasevska’s musical tastes is evident when I ask her to name some pieces she is most looking forward to conducting in the future. She cites both Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and the Negro Folk Symphony written by the pioneering 20th-century black American composer William Dawson (which in fact she will conduct in Lahti this autumn). ‘To me music is about building bridges and making contact between people from different backgrounds,’ she says. ‘I’m so excited that so many new voices from various backgrounds have been given the chance to be heard.’

And away from her orchestral work she has been doing her bit to promote that wider range of voices. ‘During the pandemic I’ve been thinking a lot about how to develop new ways of communicating music,’ she says. ‘I’ve been putting together a series called Dalia’s Mixtape, which takes inspiration from hip-hop mixtape culture as well as playlists on streaming platforms. I combine small pieces from composers representing both old and new music, and create out of them a new narrative, a musical story.’

Stasevska’s childhood spanned three countries. She never really knew Ukraine, and has only visited her country of birth five or six times in her life. Shortly after she was born, her family – who excelled in the visual arts and sciences rather than music – emigrated first to Tallinn in Estonia, then (when she was five) to Helsinki and finally Tampere in southwest Finland. ‘My father remarried, to a Finnish woman, so Finland is basically my home country,’ she reflects.

If they were thinking of the young Dalia as a future international conducting superstar – which they were certainly not – the family could not have chosen a better country in which to raise her. By the time she started studying the violin at school, Finland was already producing a stream of superbly characterful conductors, singers, instrumentalists and composers whose impact on the musical world was far out of proportion to the size of Finland’s 5.5 million population. 

‘I think three things account for that,’ Stasevska says. ‘First, as a young country [Finland gained its independence only in 1917], I think people realised that they needed to put extra effort into nurturing the country’s culture. It was about making a national identity too. Second, our education system puts music at the heart of the curriculum from elementary school onwards. And third, equality has always been an important thing in Finland, which meant equal musical possibilities, free of charge, for everyone. For me, that was so important. We weren’t a wealthy family. Had we moved to, say, the United States my family would never have had the money to put a violin in my hands and pay for lessons, let alone send me to a conservatory.’

She was studying violin at the renowned Sibelius Academy in Helsinki when she was suddenly struck by the desire to become a conductor. ‘I was a second-year student when, for the first time, I saw a female conductor – someone who actually looked like me. “Wait a minute!” I thought. “Maybe I can do that too.”’

She was in the right place to try. The Sibelius Academy has a unique conducting course devised by the legendary Jorma Panula. Just turned 90, he is the teacher who trained Esa-Pekka Salonen, Osmo Vänskä, Sakari Oramo, just about every other distinguished Finnish conductor. ‘He created this fantastic system by saying, quite simply, that to train as a conductor you need an orchestra,’ Stasevska says. ‘So every Friday and Saturday the conducting students have three hours in front of an orchestra of their fellow students. It’s a genius idea because you educate conductors and future orchestral musicians at the same time, and each generation develops hand in hand.’

Do the student players give feedback to the conductors? ‘Oh yes, but it’s very natural because you are all friends, so you are exploring the world, and the world of music, together anyway. Sometimes when you do conducting masterclasses in front of a professional orchestra it can be quite scary. I mean, it’s good to get feedback from professionals, but they can be merciless! The other thing about Panula’s teaching is that he required every student conductor to play an instrument in an orchestra, even if they were studying piano or voice. He thought it essential for conductors to know the orchestra from the inside.’

Great, but how did Stasevska manage to get a place on such a highly prized course? Her answer says a lot about her resolve. ‘I stalked Panula for a few months,’ she grins. ‘He was this big important figure and always surrounded by many students, but eventually I managed to slip into an elevator with him. I said “can I try conducting too?”. He said “of course”, took some random receipt out of his pocket, scribbled a phone number and said “call this person”. It was someone running conducting masterclasses. And that was it. I grabbed a baton and have never let go of it.’

Words by Richard Morrison. This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of BBC Music Magazine. 

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Top image credit: Jarmo Katila