Thoughts on music

Thoughts on music

Education, gender equality and professionalism through the eyes of Sakari Oramo and Lotta Wennäköski

Text and translation: Elisa Wistuba Lorca
Photo: Sara Forsius

Sakari Oramo, Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, also a fellow Finn, gave us the opportunity to meet him briefly during rehearsals this spring at the BBC Studios in London.  Meeting him was one of the highlights of my internship at The Finnish Institute in London and my own background in playing the cello for years gave me the impulse to bring up topics I wanted to hear Oramo’s thoughts about. After listening and watching him conduct for a while we sat down in the conductor’s room to discuss shortly. For me, having started my own music studies in the mid-nineties at the same music institute as Oramo did in his childhood, this was a chance to hear his ideas on Finnish music education and different pedagogic views. Gender equality in professional orchestras was also one of our main topics, and therefore I was pleased to get later in touch with the Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski to hear her perspective as well.

Sakari Oramo, what does it take to inspire a child to become a professional musician? Can there be a balance between a demanding, even strict old school pedagogy and inspirational teaching methods that encourage the child to find a strong, inner motivation to learn?

“It depends quite a lot how the child is motivated in the music. If the demands (to study music) are external this can become a problem – not for everybody though. Some individuals just are somehow made for that – always striving for better results, and for others that simply doesn’t suit at all.”

What about parents’ and music educators’ roles in this?

Oramo: “Well, they always tend to say that parents are the ones who put pressure on their children. But good parents will do their best to guide their children to do meaningful things. Of course, there can be pressure involved in that as well.”

“They (the music educators) have a very big role, and there are various kinds of teachers. I think it is important to be sensitive and notice if there’s a child or young person who has a very strong inner will to do music and develop – that is something that needs to be supported in every possible way. In my own family, for instance, there are two kinds of children: one that has been very much into music since the beginning, and the other who couldn’t care less about it – something totally different. And that’s what makes them individuals – not everyone can become a professional musician. Not even all the students who get into the Sibelius Academy end up as professionals – it’s only a small group out of those who study there.”

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Sakari Oramo and Elisa Wistuba Lorca. Photo: Sara Forsius

How do you see the Finnish music education system from this perspective?

Oramo: “I think that after all it is wonderful that in Finland there are possibilities to study music with relatively low costs and very high quality, all around the country. And all the music orientated primary schools for instance support this as well. But yet, I think that a child who studies music should always have other identities besides the music. If that one thing becomes too essential and stops the child from having other normal activities such as hanging out with friends or playing sports… That’s alarming.”

Gender equality in the world of professional orchestras seems to be a topic that comes up in public discussion and media especially when a woman breaks the tradition of professional positions that have historically been masculine – even male chauvinist. When Susanna Mälkki started as the Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra in 2016, being the first woman to hold this post, the theme of female conductors rose to the headlines. The discussion was on even before she was named and it showed that a woman, because of her gender, is still clearly an exception if you look back on the long line of male conductors, composers, musicians and even some discriminatory attitudes towards women’s professional capabilities. I wonder if my own need to bring out the topic of “female” professionals distracts the attention away even more from pure art and professionalism – the core things that should not be observed purely by anyone’s gender. Yet, silence is not always golden. What do Wennäkoski and Oramo think?


Lotta Wennäkoski. Photo: Maarit Kytöharju/Fennica Gehrman

Lotta Wennäkoski, as a professional composer, does your gender matter in the professional field?

“The composer’s personality is a wholeness that consists of musical expression, chosen topics and one’s own character, in which gender, as one of the characteristics, forms part of the entity – actually a very visible one. In that sense gender “matters” in the professional field as well, but I have never experienced any kind of underestimation or wondering because of it.”

Sakari Oramo commented on the topic in our discussion as well.

Do you think women have equal professional possibilities as musicians in orchestras – or as conductors, as men?

Oramo: “I would say that as musicians in orchestras, yes, quite well. Nowadays in most countries they use blind auditions. So they (the jury) have a list of names and there might be dozens of applicants, all playing behind a screen. So it’s impossible to figure out whether there’s a man or a woman playing.”

“And for example in the BBC Symphony Orchestra about half of the musicians are women, of those who have a permanent contract. Of course there are cultures where this is less usual, like for instance the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra that, back in the days, did not have any women among their members. But that has been changing slowly as well, and women have brought fresh energy, something that those orchestras did not use to have.”

“Talking about conductors – or maybe even composers – it’s another story. Lately in the UK and in Sweden the position of female composers has been a topic of discussion. In Sweden they have had a quota for female composers already for a while, meaning that a certain part of compositions at a certain period of time has to be composed by a woman. That might sound artificial but the aim is to make sure that women won’t get discriminated just because they don’t have the name of Bach or Beethoven.”

“There is yet another interesting phenomena. When you look for instance American orchestras, they are all completely white. I mean, they might have one or two black musicians somewhere among them, but it is extremely rare. That happens also here in the UK. So, from that perspective, the world of classical music is traditionally male chauvinist and racist, there is no question about it.”

How is the situation in Finland with female conductors or composers?

Oramo: “In the world of composers, there is a visible change going on, and Kaija Saariaho has naturally had quite a significant influence on this, her being one of the first Finnish female composers achieving world class status internationally. Yet, conductors are a different story. We’ve recently had quite huge breakthroughs such as conductor Susanna Mälkki, of course. She has been working for decades and only now achieved the position that she truly deserves. So, I cannot say whether this is because of her gender or something else – however, her case is a great example.”

Finally, I wanted to ask Lotta Wennäkoski about the things and moments that give her inspiration to compose.

“I prefer to start from a “total idea” which can basically be something completely unrelated to music, and which I then use to invent and define musical material. I have drawn inspiration and ideas to my work from mottos and different fabrics, for instance. However, inspiration is not something that has to be waited inactively. Ideas tend to clarify little by little through constant and systematic work.”


Prom 75: Last Night of the Proms 2017

19:15 Sat 9 Sep 2017 Royal Albert Hall

Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

World premiere of Flounce, composed by Lotta Wennäkoski