Conductor Sakari Oramo: the Finn's First Night at the Proms

His first gig as chief conductor of the BBCSO will be the most high-pressure there is – to open the Proms. If that doesn't ruffle Sakari Oramo, can anything?

'It's a perilous place, London," says the 48 year-old prize-winning Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo. His trepidation is justified. He's on the eve of his debut concert as the BBC Symphony Orchestra's chief conductor, one that also happens to be the most high-pressure opening event conceivable in the job: tomorrow's First Night of the Proms, and Oramo's first chance to christen the relationship with his new orchestra.

And yet, in rehearsal, Oramo radiates a stout, stentorian authority, leading the players through the briny brilliance of Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, and finding new colours in a piece the players probably thought they knew backwards.

His calm confidence is justified. After all, he has been here before: in 1998, he was the surprise successor to Simon Rattle at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, finding himself with the musical equivalent of what David Moyes has to do at Old Trafford next season. But instead of being overawed, Oramo approached his charges with a ferocious energy, introducing new repertoire, from Finnish composers to the undiscovered genius of British music, John Foulds, as well as playing Sibelius and Elgar with a new intensity and insight. After a decade in Birmingham, Oramo had made the orchestra his own, becoming one of the world's most sought-after maestros in the process, making debuts with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, the Chicago and Boston Symphonies. He held major posts in Finland and Sweden and remains in charge of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. Not that it makes his new role any less daunting.

"What's hard in London is that you have so much to stand for or stand against – and so much to stand out from. It helps that the other orchestras do their own thing so strongly, because we can do our own thing, and see where it leads." Easier said than done. Oramo faces stiff competition from the other companies in the capital: his fellow Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen has made the Philharmonia combine adventure with the classics, Vladimir Jurowski at the London Philharmonic has taken the ensemble and its audiences into strange and wonderful regions of the repertoire, and Valery Gergiev's relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra is still an incendiary inspiration. What's left for him to do?

"To justify its presence, the BBC Symphony must do things that nobody else would do, or could do," he says. "I don't want to impose something on the orchestra, but the way my programming is going to look in a few years time will be a little different, I'm quite confident of that."

Oramo is guarded about those details at this stage, but talks enthusiastically about the premieres and programmes he will lead next season. There are combinations of the new – an eagerly awaited piece by French composer Tristan Murail, whose score still hasn't arrived in Oramo's inbox, making him just a little nervous about what's in store – and the familiar, such as Beethoven's Eroica and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. Oramo's mission is to ring the changes so that "the unusual becomes understandable, the difficult becomes easy, and the undecipherable becomes totally clear sunlight."

Perhaps the most difficult challenge for Oramo is to make the BBCSO as celebrated as it should be. The Proms are the orchestra's most obvious shop window, above all as the house band of the Last Night. But for the rest of the season, audiences don't much cherish their concerts – and it's a great shame. I've heard the BBC Symphony give concerts that I don't think any other orchestra in the world could do as brilliantly – the ferociously challenging music of Brian Ferneyhough, or the radiant visions of Jonathan Harvey. That supreme virtuosity in new music makes them unique among London's big orchestras, but with their previous Chief Conductor Jiri Belohlavek they also gave a scintillating cycle of Martinu symphonies and a searing performance of Smetana's Ma Vlast. But, on the whole, Oramo believes the orchestra "needs clarity". It's also why he excitedly believes this job is "an open book which you can write on. There are practically no limits in terms of what the players are able to play and how they're able to sound. The real question is what you're going to ask them to do, and where that takes them."

His own journey at the helm starts with an opening-night programme dominated by masterpieces of British music: Britten's Sea Interludes, a salty amuse-bouche for the second half; Vaughan Williams's gigantic A Sea Symphony, performed by around 450 singers. "Rehearsing today, I thought to myself, there is no such thing as 'English music'. Britten and Vaughan Williams are so different. It would be healthy for English music not to be seen as 'English' but as 'music' – and damn good music, too." Oramo has done more than any other non-British conductor to spread this message all over the world, but he's also given it back afresh to UK audiences. Later in the Proms season, he'll get his baton round Granville Bantock as well as Elgar's Enigma Variations.

Friday will be the first time Oramo has performed The Sea Symphony, which he considers a raw diamond. "It took me a long time to find my way into it," he says. "It's the combination of Walt Whitman's poetry, which is not rhythmical in a sense, and Vaughan Williams's very steady four-in-a-bar music that I thought didn't go very well together. But actually, Williams creates a structure that isn't there in the text, and there are so many glorious things in it." Listening to A Sea Symphony can be an incredibly emotional experience. Oramo explains why. "You've got this wonderful, slow second movement, which is incredibly atmospheric, and the finale is just … epic. It's naive but it's deeply felt. And it's wonderfully optimistic. That's the value of the piece, that it tells us about the unbounded optimism of that pre-first world war Britain."

Trust a Finn to celebrate an unclouded vision of empire at the Proms. But if A Sea Symphony comes off tomorrow, you can bet it will be the result of Oramo's hard work on the score. "Music should never be easy," he says. "It should feel natural, yes, but not easy. It should not be about saying how great I am, how great I look. That why the Proms suits me, because it's about giving music to the people, not about showing yourself off."

Five must-see Proms this year

Prom 8: Britten, Lutosławski and Thomas Adès

The world premiere of Totentanz – the dance of the dead, based on a medieval German frieze – by Adès (pictured above) promises to be orgiastic, morbid and a season highlight. 17 July, 7.30pm.

Prom 40: 6 Music Prom

If you'll excuse the self-promotion: 6 Music's Steve Lamacq and I will present the first time the Stranglers, Cerys Matthews and Laura Marling (pictured below) will share a stage with the London Sinfonietta, with the music of Xenakis, Varèse, Berio and Steve Martland. Boom. 12 August, 10.15pm.

Prom 45: Tippett – The Midsummer Marriage

A major tribute to Michael Tippett, whose opera The Midsummer Marriage dares to dream of a new world order forged through the ritualistic, earthy and modernist. Andrew Davis conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra and a thrilling cast. 16 August, 6.30pm.

Prom 50: White, Barry, Rzewski and Feldman

Conductor Ilan Volkov is arguably the most innovative programmer of new music. The chance to hear Morton Feldman's late masterpiece Coptic Light already makes this an unmissable gig; throw in the first performance of a Piano Concerto by the American iconoclast Frederic Rzewski and the vivid imagination of pieces by John White and Gerald Barry, and you have the makings of a great late night at the Proms. 19 August, 10.15pm.

Prom 57: Wagner – Parsifal

Wagner's last opera is an atmospheric fit for the huge acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall. Mark Elder's performance with the Hallé will consecrate the space with Wagner's most radiant, ambitious and sheerly sumptuous music. 25 August, 4.30pm.

Tom Service


Tom Service

The GuardianTramp

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