As he looks ahead to taking the helm of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (FRSO) in autumn 2021, 36-year-old British conductor Nicholas Collon talks below about the excitement and opportunities of leading a radio orchestra. The young maestro made his FRSO debut in March 2017, and returned to Helsinki on 17 May to conduct the musicians in Julian Anderson's Fantasias, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and Ravel's Piano Concerto in G with Fazil Say. More information about Nicholas Collon here.
Q: You’re the first non-Finn to hold the post of Chief Conductor of the FRSO, one of whose chief missions is to promote Finnish culture. What are some of the Finnish composers whom you hope to spotlight aside from the obvious choice of Sibelius?
NC: I find the prospect of getting to know the whole range of the contemporary Finnish music scene really exciting. In England, we have a close relationship with Sibelius' music, but beyond that, there's a whole world I'm excited to discover. Of course, I know well the music of Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg, but there's also, for instance, Lena Wennäkoski, who's writing a harp concerto that I'll do with the FRSO. It'll be a bit of a voyage of discovery learning about some of these voices. I'm sure I'll be able to unearth some unknown composers along the way! I'm very excited about the job in Finland and I'm looking forward to the journey that we're going to go on together.
Q: Contemporary music occupies an important place in your repertory. I believe you’ve conducted something like over 200 new works, which is huge! Tell us, for instance, about the work by Kalevi Aho that you’ll be doing with the FRSO in Feb. 2020, which Finnish Radio is offering to Members in MUS as a Premium Concert (EURO/2019-2020/PC3/010).
NC: Oh, Kalevi Aho’s Symphonic Dances is a great piece, sitting in the same programme as Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances. It was brought to my attention by the FRSO. I believe that some of it is the reconstruction of a work by Klami, or at least inspired by it. Uuno Klami (1900-1961) was a Finnish composer who was writing music mainly in the 1940s and '50s. I believe Aho used the five dances from his ballet Whirls, after the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic poem, as an inspiration for his own Symphonic Dances, which is very colourful and energetic. One doesn't want to stereotype, of course, but a lot of Finnish contemporary music has this energy that just grabs people. In the contemporary music that I conduct, I love it when there are notes on the page and harmonies and rhythms that I can get people excited about.
Q: You’ve done quite a bit of Russian music recently. After you conducted Shostakovich’s Eighth with the Oslo Philharmonic, you said you couldn’t get enough of it. In October, you’re conducting his Ninth with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in a programme from Danish Radio in our upcoming Premium Concerts series (EURO/2019-2020/PC1/010). What draws you to that repertory especially?
NC: Well, it's fantastic music, isn't it? I do a lot of Russian repertory, not so much Tchaikovsky, but Shostakovich and Stravinsky and Prokofiev, and I love all three. It's just wonderful music in very different ways. I am also fascinated by the period in terms of the history and culture of that time. At university I studied the impact that the Revolution and the Soviet Union had on these composers and their cultural backgrounds and what it means for their music.
Q: As the leader of a radio orchestra, you will have the opportunity to defend a particular mission of public broadcasting. What do you see as the differences, but also the similarities, between that and what you have already done, say, with Aurora or the Residentie Orchestra?
NC: There's a big common principle with any group of musicians. What you try to find with any group is why it exists, what its history is, how it engages with the audience and how it improves the lives of the people who listen. In each instance, it's different. I created Aurora Orchestra in the UK, so there was no pre-existing history there, whereas the Residentie Orkest in The Hague is an ensemble with a long history, so you try to figure out where it wants to go and how to reshape it. With a radio orchestra, in the case of the FRSO, there is an incredibly wide reach through radio and TV, giving them the potential to play very challenging repertory and not to worry about marketing. Other orchestras would look on that with envy! With the FRSO, I am embarking on a very adventurous mission, being in the vanguard of, and actually pushing contemporary music. That represents a level of experimentation that a non-radio orchestra simply could not do, reinforced by the knowledge of being able to disseminate all their concerts on radio and also TV.
Q: With Aurora, of which you’re the founding conductor, you’ve appeared regularly at the BBC Proms since 2010. How does one approach a performance for a festival of mass appeal, many of whose audience are not in the hall but are radio listeners?
NC: Obviously I'm thrilled to know about all those radio listeners out there as well, but my main focus always stays on the live performance. I would say the main difference for us is the spoken word text that we prepare in advance and which can't be too long for radio listeners. But it's the live concert in the hall that we prepare, and that also works really well for radio listeners because one reason they tune in is because they love the thrill of a live concert broadcast.
Q: The term often heard about Aurora is “ground-breaking”. They are famous for their off-score interpretation of symphonies, which obviously allows for much more intimate contact with their audience. Tell us a bit more about your efforts to reinvent the concert format, as you’re doing, for instance, with your “Orchestral Theatre” staging of Berlioz’ Fantastique at a Proms concert in September (available to Members in the Summer Festivals as ER/2019//04/20/15).
NC: We use the opportunity to memorize the symphony to do something quite adventurous with it. So for this concert, we have an actor who will talk about Berlioz and his relationship with Harriet Smithson and how it affected the piece and the way it was composed. For instance, because we are off-score, we can actually play the Scène aux champs completely in the dark, which gives it another feeling entirely for the audience. The last movement (Songe d'une nuit de Sabbat) will be played with masks on, to give people the idea of a night with demons, sorcerers and witches.