Conductor Dalia Stasevska on winning the Royal Philharmonic Society’s 2020 Conductor Award

This year’s victorious conductor Dalia Stasevska talks to Freya Parr about her hugely successful first year at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra

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In a year with so little live music, the winners of the 2020 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards were forced to go above and beyond what would usually be expected of artists and musicians.

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‘I feel particularly honoured to win in a year as difficult as this,’ says Dalia Stasevska, winner of the Conductor Award. Her victory is testament to the fact that she has thrived despite the difficult conditions, having taken on the role of principal guest conductor with the BBC Symphony Orchestra last summer. ‘We only managed to do one concert at the Barbican before lockdown,’ she explains. ‘I had a lot scheduled for the springtime, all of which was then cancelled.’

As lockdown eased over the summer, Stasevska was able to join her orchestra again. ‘Somehow we’ve been able to grow together, despite not being able to play as a full orchestra,’ she says. ‘There’s a real feeling of community.’ Together they played a handful of major concerts, not least the Last Night of the Proms and the orchestra’s 90th birthday celebrations, the latter of which was a celebration of Finnish and British music over the years.

Stasevska is not the only Finn at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra: Sakari Oramo, the orchestra’s chief conductor and previous RPS Conductor Award-winner, is another Finnish maestro making waves in the UK. In Stasevska’s first live concert back after lockdown, she joined Oramo with fellow Finns Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Klaus Mäkelä in a celebration of their teacher Jorma Panula’s 90th birthday. How does Finland keep producing such prodigious conducting talent? ‘It’s down to Jorma and the great education system in Finland,’ suggests Stasevska. ‘Everyone can study music from a very early age and has equal opportunities – it’s responsible for creating so many brilliant conductors.’

At just 35 years old, Stasevska is part of the next generation of these great Finnish conductors working internationally. She’s had a long affinity with the UK, having conducted one of her earliest international concerts in Leeds with Opera North in 2018. ‘I immediately called my agent and said, “this is incredible; I love the sound, I love the people here”. The pace at which people work here is very similar to Finland,’ she says. ‘The string sound always has such a warmth to it. UK orchestras hold a special place in my heart.’

From next September, however, Stasevska’s time will be divided between the UK and her native Finland again, when she takes over as chief conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. ‘It’s a very progressive orchestra,’ says Stasevska. ‘There are fresh new ideas about the way we function as a “green” orchestra as well as the way we programme music.’ She’s also excited about the potential to perform more Finnish music, repertoire she’s always championed. ‘The orchestra has traditions in playing Sibelius’s music, which suits me perfectly.’

Stasevksa has always been an advocate for bringing diverse styles of music together. It’s why she’s remained committed to opera and symphonic music in equal measures throughout her career. ‘When I conduct symphonic repertoire, I think in an operatic way and vice versa,’ she reveals. But it’s not just the variation of artistic styles that appeals – it’s also the logistics. ‘It’s good for me to settle in one place for a few months and work on one project with a big opera company and lots of people, but it’s also important for me to have the fast pace of orchestral life.’

The idea of such an active musical life feels like a distant reality at the moment. Even with Stasevska’s growing calendar with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it’s been a huge challenge to adapt to this new way of working. ‘People don’t realise how long sound actually takes to travel,’ she says. ‘I’ve had to learn how to rehearse an orchestra in a totally different way – we’re having to work on things that ordinarily would be so natural, like playing pizzicato together. We’re even having to reconsider how to turn pages, because everyone’s so spread out. String players in particular are trained to play in tight groups, sitting next to their colleagues, which isn’t possible.’

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It’s certainly a challenge for any conductor to face, let alone one in the first major role of her career. But it’s a challenge Stasevksa is grasping with both hands. ‘This is a new reality for artists and conductors,’ she notes. ‘It’s given me renewed hope and inspiration to keep progressing forward as much as we can.’