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Sakari Oramo interview

As the conductor picks up the BBC baton, we ask Oramo to define his electrifying approach to orchestral performance

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© Rob Greig

At the beginning of a piece, the baton in right hand moving upwards signals how the first note should be played, in terms of dynamics, speed and attack.

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© Rob Greig

Then, the baton in the right hand descending indicates the first note of the piece and the first beat of the bar, thereafter.

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© Rob Greig

The left hand held upright and moving outwards tells some or all of the orchestra, depending on whom the conductor is looking at, to increase the volume.

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© Rob Greig

The left hand held upright and withdrawn to chest is a signal for a particular section, or all, of the orchestra to take their foot off the noise pedal.

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© Rob Greig

With the baton in the right hand held still, the left circles in an anticlockwise motion, its open hand closing on the end of the final note.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra has a new chief conductor. Sakari Oramo has risen from being a violinist in the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, a journey which began in 1993 when he stepped up to replace an indisposed conductor. Ahead of his first Barbican Hall concert of the season, the 48-year-old Finn popped into Time Out Towers to explain and demonstrate exactly what his job is all about.

What does a conductor do?


‘He or she has to know the music inside out, as well as its overall dramatic shape and be able to transmit it to the performers and to the audience.’

Why are conductors so important?

‘Innocent laymen often ask why skilled professionals need someone waving a stick in front of them when they could play on their own? Mostly they could, but would it be special?’

Is your performance as a conductor only as good as the weakest player in the orchestra?

‘No. My job is actually to make it sound better than its parts. A conductor is somebody who pulls together the best in an orchestra and makes it sound so that it does justice to the music.’

Can two hands and a baton really convey all that information?

‘Sometimes you don’t even need a baton. Sometimes it is inadequate. Can you think of another highly intellectual activity that requires so little hardware?’

How do conductors develop a style?


‘You can copy gestures. Every conductor learns from each other, if not openly then secretly. I learned a lot from the people I played with when I was in the orchestra 20 years ago, conductors such as Jukka Pekka Saraste and Lief Segerstam. I knew exactly why they did what they did and why it succeeded or not.’

Is conducting very tiring?

‘The physical part is there but it is like a side product. The spiritual, psychological, musical and intellectual aspects are far more demanding and important.’

Is all the work done in rehearsal?

‘I don’t abandon everything we have done in rehearsal but I like to think a performance is a re-creation of the first time you hear the piece. It requires the orchestra to be in the moment, and not on autopilot.’

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