Finnish conductor, John Storgårds, joins NACO

Published 8.1.2015

For just the second time in its 45-year history, the National Arts Centre has appointed a principal guest conductor for its resident orchestra.

John Storgårds, the Finnish conductor who will lead NACO in two concerts this week, was officially named to the post Tuesday morning. He will formally assume his duties in September 2015. The three-year contract ensures that the 51-year-old Storgårds will be in Ottawa for at least two weeks every season.

The NACO classical season is 17 subscription weeks long. The new music director, Alexander Shelley, will conducta minimum of eight weeks and the rest of the time will be filled by other guest conductors.

"The contract leaves some flexibility to add something,” Storgårds said in an interview. AlthoughStorgårds has recorded the entire Sibelius symphony cycle, he does mix up his musical choices.

"I am very much (a) Finn still. I feel at home there. I still wouldn’t want to live anywhere else for a long period,” said the conductor, noting that most of his education has been in his home country.

The one time he did leave Finland for education was when he went to Israel to study the violin with the legendary player and educator Haim Taub.

"The conducting and new music, it has all been at home. I was involved in the foundation of the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra. This was one generation of people — composers, conductors — who all got together as teenagers and started to do something by ourselves, outside the establishment. That has meant a lot to us.”

In addition he is theartistic director of the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, a post in Finland’s north that he has held since 1996 and intends to stay at, no matter what else happens in his busy international career.

Finnish music used to be all about the great composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957).

"I think things have changed quite a lot when you are talking about Finland in the last 20 or 30 years, but before that Finnish musical life was Sibelius. Everything else was in the shadow of Sibelius, but it is not like that any more. Now new Finnish music is being played all over the world.

"Being a small population, everybody in a certain field is always involved with everybody else. Avanti! was all about giving young Finnish composers a chance to hear everything they wrote played, rehearsed and performed.”

Today, he says, the established orchestras in Finland include this kind of work in their programming.

Storgårds will be under contract for the next three years. The position is one that major orchestras try tofill. For example Pinchas Zukerman is the principal guest baton at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London.

The NAC also renewed the contracts ofAlain Trudel as principal youth and family conductor and Jack Everly as principal pops conductor.

Storgårds first led NACO in 2013 in an all-Finnish program. In 2014 heconducted a performance of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony.

A violinist, Storgårds has led the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra as chief conductor since 2008. He helped found the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra. In 2011, Storgårds was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. He has made a number of international recordings, winning the Cannes Classical Disc of the Year Award in 2004.

This past year he has recorded a box set of Sibelius symphonies with the BBC Philharmonic on the Chandos label.

The other principal guest conductor of the NACO was Franz-Paul Deckerfrom 1991 to 1999. Decker, who led the Montreal Symphony Orchestra for more than a decade, died last May.

"Every artistic leadership has its own characteristics. If you look at the scope of goals that we (the National Arts Centre Orchestra) have institutionally (the promotion of new work being one goal) and also the desire to hang on to a relationship withStorgårds” made the contract a natural development,Deacon said.

In the search for a replacement to Pinchas Zukerman as music director, the NACO built a strong relationship with many potential successors, connections that the orchestra wishes to nurture.

"This guy was at the top of the list of people that we wanted to keep,” Deacon said.

Hiring Decker made sense, Deacon noted, because the music director at the time was Trevor Pinnock, a baroque specialist. Decker’s experience with Brahms and Beethoven made him a natural fit.

This current contract is coming in a completely different set of circumstances, Deacon says.

"This is to embrace the opportunity ahead of us (with a change in leadership) and to embrace good friends like John.” NACO is about to embark on a period of "music that you have never heard before, and presenting music you do know in a different way,” Deacon says.

That change in direction doesn’t worryStorgårds.

"It’s very important to have a good relationship wioth the orchestra who see me as a many-sided musician. I don’t want to be only the Finnish guy focusing only on Sibelius. I love to do that, but that’s only one part of me. I love to work with orchestras that want to work with me in a lot of different repertoires.”

He says he feels that with the NACO. "There is a good hunger with this group, they want to work on things they know and they want to work on things they don’t know. They have a disctinct personality that says we are here and ready. They are really together.”

On Jan. 7 and 8 the Ottawa audience will get a look at him as heleads NACO in pieces by the Dane Carl Nielsen (Little Suite), a new work by American Marc Neikrug (Bassoon Concerto featuring Christopher Millard) and the German Romantic Robert Schumann (Symphony No. 3 "Rhenish”).

After he is done in Ottawa, Storgårds is off to Switzerland for a week and then back to Finland. No doubt he will be hopping over to his job in Britain with the BBC and make a foray into North America.

It’s a busy life. When he takes a break he likes to disappear into nature, just another reason why Ottawa holds appeal.