By Christopher Morley


When Sir Simon Rattle left the CBSO in 1998 after 18 years as principal conductor, everyone knew he would be a hard act to follow. But the management had been busy behind the scenes, ensuring a smooth succession to secure the players’ choice, the young Finn Sakari Oramo, who had so impressed them conducting the orchestra in a performance of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. I remember a telephone interview with him prior to that concert, and he came across as a bright, personable young man.

Now, well over a quarter of a century later, we have had another telephone conversation, he back home in Finland, and the bright, personableness remains. But in the intervening years Sakari has chalked up ten triumphant years at the CBSO before moving on to the position he has made so emphatically his own, principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (following on from two of his CBSO predecessors, Adrian Boult and Rudolf Schwarz). He returns to Birmingham to conduct two programmes at the very end of this month.

He chuckles when I ask him how will it be, going back to the CBSO after all these years?

“It will be fantastic, of course, and certainly very emotional, too. I think I will recognise some players in the orchestra, but most of them will be new faces. The hall will be familiar, of course, and the CBSO Centre, and the alleyways around them… So it will be very exciting to be there!”

Sakari did so much for the CBSO when he was its Music Director. Has he been able to keep an eye on the orchestra’s progress?

“Yes, I have! Social media helps a lot. Nowadays things are much easier to follow than they were back then. It’s been very nice to follow the appointment of the now Music Director (Kazuki Yamada), which seems to be as happy an affair as mine was, and my successors.”

Sakari’s programme with the CBSO on February 28 is a dream one for me, featuring the Richard Strauss Four Last Songs, Sakari’s wife Anu Komsi making a welcome return as soprano soloist, and Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. How much of an input did he have into the building of this programme?

“Well, I am glad the CBSO took the bait and accepted the programme as we suggested it! It’s good that it’s quite close to the centenary of the premiere of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. Back in 1924 Sibelius conducted it himself in Stockholm. It was the only Sibelius symphony that wasn’t premiered in Finland. It was originally called Fantasia Sinfonica, and only later, when it was published, did they decide to call it Symphony number Seven.

“And actually there’s an interesting dynamic in the programme, in that the Strauss is the newest of the pieces, the most recent one, although of course the composer was the oldest of them all, and also the style of the Four Last Songs is harking back to the glory days of romanticism. Whereas Sibelius, especially in The Tempest (which begins the programme) and the Seventh Symphony looks forward in time, rather than backwards.”

We then have a discussion about why I consider Sibelius Seven the second greatest symphony of the 20th century. Which is the greatest, Sakari asks me? Mahler Six, I reply, for the classicism of its form, and how so much emotion is constrained into such a tight structure. Sakari listens politely, but will not commit himself.

Sakari’s February 29 concert with the orchestra is in fact the CBSO Development Fund concert, in which all the performers give their services towards supporting former and present CBSO players and staff. As currently advertised, the only announced work is Mozart’s Violin Concerto no.5, Daishin Kashimoto the soloist. Can Sakari fill me in on any of the other items?

“If I remember it correctly, we have Elgar’s Cockaigne overture to start with, and Sibelius Five to end with.”

After a mutual enthusing over Malcolm Arnold symphonies, with which Sakari has recently becoming acquainted, we move on to a delicate discussion of the recent controversy surrounding the continued inclusion of “Rule, Britannia” in the Last Night of the Proms, over which Sakari generally presides.

“For me it’s a kind of a party, and a tradition. I know that ‘Rule, Britannia’ was not always a part of that, it hasn’t always been an integral part of the long tradition, but now it’s become a staple of the programme. But I see it as more of a party-piece where the soloist likes to dress up, and it’s boisterous fun. I know it is a problem in the sense of racial inequality, but of course it is still a factor in our lives, but I think in this context it’s a kind of calling-card for the performer.”

But we end by talking about his return to the CBSO, and his conclusion:

“Its going to be a very emotional experience”,

*Sakari Oramo conducts the CBSO on February 28 and 29 at Symphony Hall (7.30pm).


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