theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Olari Elts in Tallinn

22. December 2019.

Arriving in Tallinn hotfoot from Paavo Järvi’s inaugural concert as chief conductor of Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra, and expecting the limelight to belong to composer Erkki-Sven Tüür on his 60th birthday, I found another Estonian bonus in store. Not only did 48-year-old Olari Elts, whose work I was witnessing live for the first time, conduct what turned out to be a Tüür symphonic triptych masterfully; he had just been unofficially appointed Neeme Järvi’s successor as Music Director of the superb Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, to take effect in the 2020-21 season.

News couldn’t be broken until December, but in the light of an inspiring concert, I eagerly took up the orchestra’s offer to interview Elts in a cafe just up the road from the concert hall, around the corner from his Tallinn home and opposite the flat where a former teacher used to hold discussions with regular visitor Shostakovich (more of that in the interview). So here we are with the good news finally public, and transcribing our chat held over the loud Saturday morning buzz in the cafe, I realise how much a part of the big change in Estonian musical and national life Elts, born in 1973, actually represents.

DAVID NICE: Those are big shoes to step into. Did you grow up with Neeme Järvi as the national example of great conducting?

OLARI ELTS: He emigrated to America in 1980, I was nine at the time, and then he returned with his Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra nine years later. I remember those concerts so well – they played Nielsen’s Fifth, Sibelius Second, but I was especially amazed by the timpanist in Arvo Pärt’s Third Symphony. It’s fascinating where that piece sits in his output, in the middle of the desert years, 1971. I will admit that before I heard the performance I had a problem with Pärt’s music, I liked the earlier, more avant-garde, music, but coming to the later works took time. For me the key was the Third Symphony, the concert was very important for me. The Sibelius was amazing. That was one of the first times when you could hear a foreign orchestra from western Europe playing here in this hall [the Estonia Concert Hall, inaugurated in 1913].

Was contemporary music your first love when you were training?

Like all orchestral conductors in Soviet time I started with choral conducting, because then that was the only option. In Estonia at that time we had no orchestral conducting department at all, most conductors including Neeme did their first diploma as a choral conductor and then they went to Leningrad, or one or two to Moscow. I studied choral conducting in the Music Academy, and then the wall came down, so I thought I’d go in a different direction, so I did a couple of years in Vienna in the 1990s, with Uros Lajovic, alongside Kirill Petrenko, I had to start again, because they didn’t accept other diplomas, and a choral conducting diploma is not very appetising. Then I studied here with Eri Klas and Roman Matsov, and in Finland too, with private study and masterclasses with Jorma Panula, I owe everything to him, he was my most important teacher, Jorma, and as probably for most conductors in the north, last 20 years, so that’s the background. Then during my student years, we had a new music festival here called NYDD which we did together with Erkki-Sven, there was this idea to have a new music ensemble of the same name, that was the perfect tool for me, it was my laboratory, and it was a field where no-one could follow me, because new music was a black hole. Officially, during the Soviet time, to speak about western new music was not really recommended, even Schoenberg was regarded as tied up with capitalism.

It seems that with the Khrushchev thaw, which is way before your time, dodecaphony could be discussed, but then it reverted again.

We did discuss it, luckily we had a teacher who brought back western LPs, so we were listening, but in the concert scene, to do this was in the long term very difficult. So we had to catch up quickly, starting with more classical stuff like [Stravinsky’s] L’histoire du soldat and all the classic Schoenberg, we filled those gaps as quickly as we could until we came to Boulez and Birtwistle and all those guys. And the other goal was to change the new music scene here in Estonia, because the whole attitude was very oriented to eastern European during the Soviet time, when the authorities were not willing to let us play even the new Estonian music, so we managed to change that mentality. There was also the aim to give a new opportunity to Estonian composers, to have a new laboratory, because working with a flexible ensemble you could be much more adventurous. We also tried to commission from outside, which in the 1990s was not easy.

Whom did you commission?

We had to balance very carefully, including some not so well known names here at the time, say Gavin Bryars, Jay Schwartz, music a bit on the edge, alongside Estonian composers like Helena Tulve [now co-director of Estonian New Music Days, the major spring festival in Tallinn]

So you came to maturity with Erkki-Sven, though you’re younger…

Ten years younger. He was already quite a big figure in the 1990s. First concert we played Erkki-Sven’s Architectonics 6.

At this year’s Europe Day Concert in London, where the theme was ’25 and Under: Young European Composers,’ we went back to Architectonics 1 for wind quintet, and the audience loved it.

It’s a great piece – and No. 3, sadly it’s rarely played, the Post-Metaminimal Dream for two pianos, two percussionists, flute, clarinet, violin and cello, wonderful, and No. 6 is a kind of sinfonietta. We’ve played them all, recorded them. And then he wrote some pieces for us, the Marimba Concerto with Pedro Carvelho, this amazing percussionist from Portugal, who’s also a conductor of the youth orchestra there, they do amazing things. So that’s the background – it’s new music for many reasons, because it was the work which had to be done. We stopped when we saw that the scene has changed, and the logistics were difficult, and the key players had positions in different orchestras.

So the ensemble doesn’t exist any more?

Strictly, no. Now we have many new ensembles in Tallinn, the new music scene is healthy, lots of composers get commissions now.

The Estonian New Music Days in the spring is so impressive – this year was international, but the fact that you could have five days of music by Estonian composers, many of whom I’d not heard – this is amazing for a small country.

Yes – it has a long tradition from Soviet times, because the Composers’ Society was a powerful organisation, and the position of the composer or an artist then was very different, the position of theatre – people went to read between the lines, just as they did with the notes of the composers.

I remember when I came with the Gothenburg Orchestra in 1989, David Pownall’s play Master Class was being performed, about Stalin, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

I remember that – it was amazingly well acted.

Choral festivals were very important then, weren’t they, and still are.

Yes, but it’s a different scene, and it’s amazing how few connections this world has to the rest of the music world, so they have their own composers, amazing composers, who write mainly choral music. Having been part of it myself and knowing how different it is…it’s a huge scene, especially in the 1980s and 1990s when it had a different significance. But it’s still going strong, and in the 1990s we were afraid it would go down because of different interests, but now in the last 10 years or me, the one we have for the youth, it’s a strong competition. They’re different in each Baltic country – the Latvian one is more a high level concentante thing, in Lithuania it’s more relaxed.

I went to the Latvian one for the first time last year. It was a shame it was amplified, because that way a choir of 15,000 sounds like a choir of 100. What interested me was that you had the old standards, very elaborate and beautiful, and now it sounds to me like it’s disintegrated into Euro-pop, so there’s less in the way of serious stuff being written.

That’s what they’re trying now, to keep the young interested; but it’s very important that they keep the a cappella tradition: from kindergarten, there is one piece like that, they try to keep it. It’s been harder, but if we lose the a cappella tradition we might as well stop.

The concert last night – I think everyone agreed that the recent works of Erkki-Sven’s made almost a trilogy. Who chose the programme?

Erkki-Sven. I thought, this is the moment when you have to let him do it, and I said, I’ll conduct whatever you decide.

I felt it worked amazingly well because each had its own life, but they shared some of the same hallmarks.

The shape of the pieces, all three had a similar one, introduction, going up to a quicker pitch and then the slow bit…

Those slow codas are spellbinding.

Yes. Also the way he uses the flutes, the over-blowing overtones, you keep the same fingering and you go up and down with the natural scale, when Erkki-Sven uses contemporary ways of playing, it always serves a certain idea, it’s never just for effect. There’s always this deeper meaning – even when he writes a concerto, it’s basically a symphony, it’s instrumental in the symphonic sense. In a way he’s an old-fashioned symphonist, in the best sense of the term, in the way he builds huge structures from tiny material, and it’s interesting how this vectorial system he invented to limit himself harmonically has changed the very colours of the chords, and the way on the one hand he limits himself with this system, but on the other, for the last seven or eight years he’s come to be a master of his own system, in the way he has this freedom when he uses it, he’s not dogmatic about it, but it keeps it all together so well harmonically. In the Fifth Symphony you can see the more mathematical side of this system, while in the Eighth and Ninth and in the more recent concertos, it’s at a completely different level, and at the same time he uses the best from his younger years, with the effects that begin in Architectonics 6. You still have the polarities between this theoretical, minimal music moments with serial lines especially in the woodwinds, but the way they’re connected is now very different, and much more organic than 20 years ago.

What I love is that it starts with what one could call process and then you get these amazing figures and hooks, so that it evolves from natural into human matter, I don’t know if you see it that way.

Definitely. And I think that the Ninth Symphony has more late romantic gestures than any of the other symphonies. It has the character of a Mahler symphony in the deeply philosophical sense and also incorporating the strongly rhythmical side of his earlier work with absolute precision, it has this spot-on playing with the drum-set, because when it gets really difficult, the vertical doesn’t work, it’s chaos. This is the part you have to practise a lot.

That was so impressive – he said so too.

And this is the orchestra which knows. Interestingly enough, we discussed this with a couple of players a few days ago, how actually this is the way of having contemporary music of this kind which is helpful to play the classical repertoire, because it is very disciplin-ing. Because big orchestras often don’t play so much Mozart, but to go back from this is much easier than with most contemporary music. Because we don’t talk about stylistics, the style of something. Here the orchestra gets that there is something behind the notes, in the same way as they play a Mahler symphony or the German repertoire. The way Erkki-Sven has been able to combine elements which have always been there, especially in his pieces of the 1990s, where you have those long lines and this crystallisation in the moment where the water starts to freeze, and you have a lot of this nostalgia for space which is very common in this part of the world, this is where we get the connection to Sibelius.

Also having heard two symphonies by Lepo Sumera [1950-2000] in the spring festival, these are big post-Mahlerian statements.

And at the same time in the Sumera too – it’s been written about – you have this Estonian minimalism, which was very much present in the 1960s with Jaan Rääts, who was the teacher of Erkki-Sven. His music is all about the vertical, this very 1960s post-Shostakovich idiom, when he took only one part of the Shostakovich style. It was very present in the 1980s with Raimo Kangro – there was maybe too much of it then, but you see what was happening at the same time in the States, there’s this completely bizarre way in which you can’t hide the Zeitgeist. Even in the 1920s in Russia, for instance, post- revolutionary music, Shcherbachev, Roslavets, Popov. It’s the same sort of process, even though the Iron Curtain was down.

The 20s was an incredible time in Russia, wasn’t it?

The most interesting Russian music, this avant-garde style.

And Berg was still being performed there – Wozzeck had its Soviet premiere in 1927.

Interestingly enough. Le sacre (The Rite of Spring) was forbidden, it wasn’t performed there until the 1960s, and in a way it has influenced the whole 20th century music playing tradition in eastern Europe. But this minimal part of Erkki-Sven’s music, it also has the rock music background, and with this serial music, fractally, little serial melodies, he somehow managed and is still managing to write serial music so that it has this late romantic aspect. And this freedom contrasting with this incredibly rhythmical almost aggressive part, this is what makes it very unusual and unique.

You’re friends?

We’ve become friends, yes. It’s interesting. As a conductor you can’t really influence a composer, despite aspects like commissioning the piece, that’s it.

The way you conduct may influence the way he writes in future. He may hear things that you bring out…Last night was incredibly clear but also emotionally involving all the way through. It was a full house, but a discerning audience. In the UK it’s very difficult to sell out a concert of contemporary music.

Well, it’s the same here. Except if it’s an Arvo Pärt or Erkki-Sven concert, especially if it’s an anniversary concert. Normally we’d count the audience for contemporary music in a couple of hundreds.

Nevertheless the ERSO programmes are a dream to us in their balance of old and new.

It is so these days more than earlier.

You want to develop that?

Definitely – and it’s not just because I love it, it’s also my duty. What I’ve learnt from my son, which was surprising to me, but now it seems so organic, is that the younger generation relates much more easily to contemporary music, which is always surprising.  He is 10, he sent me a text after the concert last night – he liked everything. When he was five or six he heard a mixed programme with 12 celli and a piece by Xenakis was the one he liked most. We will continue with the commissioning and also get more commissions from outside.

It’s easier because there is a freer world, there’s much more variety now. You can have five or six works in a programme and they can all sound completely different from each other.

The post-Intercontemporain era, post-Darmstadt. You know the French composer-organist Thierry Escaich – I want to bring him here, we’ve done a few things together – I remember when I was reading the booklet for his first CD, he spent most of the time apologising why he wrote this kind of music. I can only imagine how difficult it would have been at that time. You do whatever now and you can combine it more with the classical repertoire, which I like more, so you get the younger people listening to the older music. It depends also on how you play the classical repertoire – it’s no longer the dogmatic era when you had to go back to how it was written and supposed to be done. There’s an interesting book about it written 15 years ago called The End of Early Music by Bruce Haynes. We can have much more freedom having all that knowledge behind us. That was a nice era in a way, and then we had a rather perverse era when the conductor’s name was written in bigger letters than the composer’s name. This defetishizing of the conductor’s job is in a way complete, and we know what it is now, probably better than ever.

It’s a greater era of collaboration, there are fewer dictatorial conductors.

It’s more participatory, organising things sometimes, creating the ideas, inspiring the orchestra, and making the difference very differently from in the 1960s. Of course we have all those great figures we deeply admire, but you take the score and see what it is written, then you listen to the conductors of the 1960s…

Even when you listen to some of Neeme’s old-style Mozart…

OK, maybe that was not his thing, but he’s done very good Haydn, and the recordings he did with the Estonian orchestra in the 1970s are very fine, very interesting, and Neeme did a great job, that’s definitely his thing.

When I was a student in Edinburgh in the 1980s, I went to all his concerts with the Scottish National Orchestra, and those were definitely amazing mixes of classical and contemporary. I’ll never forget the impact of Arvo Pärt’s Credo for chorus and orchestra.

That’s an amazing piece. It has this schizophrenic quality, this inner duality.

It’s a great argument for C major in the form of the Bach Prelude, isn’t it?

The way it’s written in a way it’s very easy to read, but it always has this overwhelming effect; it’s important to remember that when he came to this moment he still had to hide the message. But also his early work like the Perpetuum Mobile and the Nekrolog was a student piece, Op. 1 or 2, it’s very much in the Polish Prague Spring/Moscow autumn style and interestingly enough, if you go back in Estonian musical history, Arvo Pärt is the most avant-garde Estonian composer, the 1960s stuff especially.

As for your relationship with the orchestra – you know the players well?

This is the first orchestra I ever conducted. It puts me in a very difficult position – it’s like if Salonen comes back to Helsinki, and there are still the players with whom he studied the music when he was playing the horn. There are a lot of the same players in the orchestra still, with whom I studied, these were my classmates, and in a way it’s harder, but this is the orchestra I’ve known since I listened to classical music in my childhood, this is the orchestra I made my conducting exams with, so they have seen it all.

There’s also a new generation.

Maybe half the orchestra is younger than me. Triin [Ruubel-Lilleberg, the leader, pictured below with Elts at the Tuur concert] is exactly as old as my stepdaughter. This is in a way a painful moment when you see a lot of people who are younger than you. It’s lovely to see the continuity, the rising standards.

And it’s become more equal now, between the groups. There was a time in the 1990s when a lot of orchestral members left, but now we are on a good track, I think, and it’s definitely going uphill at the moment. For the orchestra, the psychology is good, the working atmosphere is good, especially this week.[We discuss the nature of the Tüür pieces, and he refers to the Beethoven fragments in the first piece, Phantasma, as “like seeing a face at the bottom of the water, no more than that”. I refer back to Prokofiev and how he talks about the works of the 1930s as allowing you occasionally to glimpse “the outlines of a real face”]

I like most what he wrote in the 1930s. The symphonies are a bit of a problem for me. It’s the way the ballet-music influence makes them light on the surface, but there are depths under that. I haven’t yet worked out how to do this for myself, I haven’t found the key. The Fifth I have done, Shostakovich is the one I’ve done more. I am the last generation who still knows the difference, for whom freedom is not a cliché, and that sounds in itself like a cliché, but it has a meaning, it really has. By the way, after the war, always the third performances of the symphonies were happening here – after Moscow and Leningrad, because Roman Matzov became the chief conductor before Neeme, in 1956, and he lived in this house [points opposite], you see those three windows? He had long conversations with Shostakovich about music and life here. All Roman Matzov’s scores are full of Shostakovich remarks, and they are still here in this flat. He died in 2001, but his children are keeping the flat and sorting the scores is a work in progress, I hope, there are some amazing remarks, and I was taught all about Shostakovich by this teacher, who was amazing also for Beethoven.

What was the first Shostakovich you heard?

Probably the Seventh, but I’ve mainly done Six, Seven, Nine and Ten, which I learned from this guy, Matzov. He was not a guy who was known in the world at large, for obvious reasons, but he was really appreciated in the east, as a Beethoven specialist. He spoke in slightly funny Estonian, we didn’t really always understood what he was trying to say, but it was absolutely clear for me when I came back from Vienna how great this guy is. We all studied with him, he smoked like crazy, there were cigarettes and ashtrays everywhere in his rooms, even in the toilet, and on both sides of the piano. He would forget he’d lit one up when he lit another. He offered them to students, he had a kind of circle at home, and all the conductors came. Nothing started before 8 o clock in the evening, because he was working before that. And the last students came at 11 or something. I tried to be always the last one, because then we could have a longer discussion about things and music. It was always difficult, because it was almost impossible to swim through the smoke. I always had special clothes to go there. But he had an extraordinary, pre-war way of seeing life and music, which was very different from the usual Soviet drama.

Now we realise that Shostakovich was not too exaggerated about the craziness of the system, and now we see how crazy it can be with Trump and the Far Right. I understand it better, though it can always be understood as music.

It has never been as contemporary as now, for western Europe, and the western part of the world has never understood Shostakovich as well as it does now. It’s the same with Mahler, he’s also contemporary. He’s one of the most schizophrenic composers in the way he writes, and the way he structures, it’s very fragmented in a way, it’s chamber musical. What I love about Shostakovich and what is challenging is to shape his slow movements, and find how much they reveal about everything. For me the Shostakovich Ninth is the most misunderstood symphony.

It’s not at all a light work.

He couldn’t celebrate the end of the war in the way that Prokofiev did with that extraordinary Ode and its bizarre combination of instruments – we did that here. With Shostakovich Nine, it starts light,  as we know, then immediately we have this pragmatic “I do whatever you say” trombone solo, which is actually stupid. And suddenly there comes this this power of evil, anxiety and fear in the second movement, and the third movement which is like the scherzo of the Tenth Symphony – no-one should ever play that in a children’s concert as is sometimes done. Then it’s as if you wake up and all your friends have betrayed you or been killed, and then how this finale builds up, this big machinery and this huge evil, it’s at least as well done as in the Seventh Symphony, which is longer, but it creates the same feeling. So yes, there’s a lot of the Russian 20th century symphonic repertoire I want to include in the coming seasons.