There’s something in the water in Finland. Whether its the wealth of conducting teachers or an education system that nurtures musical talent, there has been a relentless flow of distinguished conducting exports from Finland in recent years. Many of them have taken the reins of leading UK orchestras – particularly at the BBC, where they seem to continually nab the top spots. We’ve picked out four of the best Finnish conductors, all of whom have held the conductor posts at BBC orchestras in recent years.
A former violinist, Sakari Oramo has been chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since the First Night of the Proms in 2013. In his time in charge, he has conducted the Last Night of the Proms on four occasions and has made highly rated recordings of composers including Sibelius, Schmitt and Ethel Smyth. His other chief conductor posts include the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from 1996-2008, where his championing of English music was rewarded with the Elgar Medal. He is also chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, a position that is due to come to an end at the end of the 2020/21 season. In October 2020, Oramo had his contract with the BBC Symphony Orchestra extended until the end of the BBC Proms in 2023.
Osmo Vänskä arrived in Glasgow as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BBC SSO) in 1996, having won acclaim as chief conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. His superlative work in the studio with the Lahti Symphony for the BIS label carried on with the BBC SSO, with whom he recorded all of Nielsen’s symphonies plus works by James MacMillan. That work now continues with the Minnesota Orchestra, where Osmo Vänskä has been music director since 2003.
Read our reviews of Osmo Vänskä’s recordings here.
In 2014, John Storgårds and the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic put their names on the shopping lists of many Sibelius fans when they released recordings of the Finnish composer’s seven symphonies, complete with fragments of his unfinished Eighth. Storgårds, whose former posts include chief conductor of the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra (2006-09), has been principal/chief guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic since 2012, during which time they have also made excellent recordings of symphonies by Nielsen and Antheil.
Having initially trained as a violinist, Saraste studied conducting at the Sibelius Academy in the same class as both Osmo Vänskä and Esa-Pekka Salonen. With Salonen, Saraste later founded the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, specialising in contemporary music. Saraste has held important conducting posts in various countries across Europe including, from 2002-05, that of principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. His 17 appearances at the BBC Proms include joining forces with percussionist Evelyn Glennie for the 1992 world premiere of James MacMillan’s Veni, Veni Emmanuel, and most recently a performance of Schoenberg’s mighty Gurrelieder in 2012.
Jorma Panula was the teacher who helped train and shape the careers of just about every distinguished Finnish conductor, including Esa-Pekka Salonen, Osmo Vänskä and Sakari Oramo. In more recent years, he’s also helped train Dalia Stasevska at the Sibelius Academy. Stasevska has gone on to become principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and chief conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra back in Finland. She made history in 2020 when she led the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the very first Last Night of the Proms in history with no audience present in the Royal Albert Hall, thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. More public attention was on the event than usual, due to the online furore about the inclusion of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protest earlier in the year and discussions of its colonialist stance. We recently named this as one of the best Last Nights of the Proms in history. Also in 2020, Stasevska won the Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Best Conductor.
Top image: Sakari Oramo (credit: Benjamin Ealovega)