Conductor puts down baton to take a bow

It's not often a conductor gets off the podium and picks up his instrument to play with the orchestra, but NZSO music director Pietari Inkinen is doing just that. Charmian Smith reports.

NZSO music director Pietari Inkinen plays the violin. Photo by Olivia Taylor.
NZSO music director Pietari Inkinen plays the violin. Photo by Olivia Taylor.
After conducting Mozart's Symphony No 29 in the NZSO's forthcoming concert tour, conductor Pietari Inkinen will make a quick dash to his dressing room to pick up his violin then return to the stage to perform Bach's Concerto for Two Violins alongside concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen.

It is unusual for a conductor to perform in one of his or her own concerts, but a few manage to continue to play their instruments, Inkinen says in a phone interview from Switzerland where he lives. He was shortly to fly to New Zealand for this series of concerts.

He likes to perform on the violin a couple of times a year when his busy conducting schedule permits, sometimes in part of an orchestral concert he is conducting, and sometimes with a chamber group, he says.

In his native Finland, he is leader of the Inkinen piano trio which, sadly, he doesn't have time to work with often, and at other times he plays with members of one of the orchestras he knows well. The last time he performed on the violin in New Zealand was in a benefit concert with members of the NZSO in Wellington for victims of the Japanese earthquake, organised by the principal bass, who is from Japan, he says.

Inkinen, who was born and educated in Finland, started to play the violin when he was 4. It was so long ago, he does not remember much, he says, but he was encouraged by his parents to try all sorts of hobbies. Among other interests and sports, the violin turned out to be what he liked best and the others fell away, one by one.

"I liked the sound of the violin and also to some extent I liked that challenge. It's a difficult instrument to play and I always liked a good challenge, so I guess that was one of the things, and after practising hard [playing] something difficult, and to see it improve and sound nice at the end - it's very rewarding."

He also played piano and at school played electric guitar in a rock band, but gave them up as he concentrated on violin and conducting.

He started studying conducting at the age of 14 and as his career took off, conducting began to take more of his time.

"Such invitations came I couldn't say no to, then slowly, slowly my calendar started to shift towards conducting," he says.

Now in his early 30s, he is principal guest conductor of the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra in Tokyo as well as NZSO music director, and conducts in Europe, America and Asia, which fills his calendar, he says.

"With the number of concerts as a conductor, and a huge amount of repertoire coming in all the time, it takes a bit of organising to block time to play the violin and to keep in shape."

He often travels with his violin, especially when he has a performance coming up, and practises in his dressing room during breaks from rehearsing an orchestra.

His performing partner in the Bach double concerto is fellow Finn Vesa-Matti Leppänen, the NZSO concert master. It is not surprising the orchestra has two Finns because Finland, with a population comparable to New Zealand's, has a strong, internationally recognised musical education system.

Anybody, anywhere in the country, has free access to decent teaching and an instrument, he says.

"There are specialised music schools which I went through where you have an hour of music lessons each day and sing in a choir and do other musical things. You don't need to belong to a rich family to start as a hobby - in some countries that is the case. The most talented people get filtered usually to Helsinki and the Sibelius Academy and become professionals. It's a system that works well,"

Many people start playing an instrument and learn to love music even though they don't become professionals, but they become a very knowledgeable audience, and that is also important, he says.

The Bach double concerto is played with a small orchestra so it has a chamber music feel, and it's natural to perform it as a music ensemble without a conductor.

It's a gorgeous piece in a minor key, neither too dramatic nor too sad, with overlapping phrases of counterpoint, he says.

The concert starts with Mozart's 29th symphony, a joyful, happy piece inspired by a visit to Vienna, and finishes with Beethoven's 7th symphony which has a dramatic slow movement and lively fireworks in the finale. Composed in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, and premiered in 1813 to benefit wounded soldiers, it is full of dancing rhythms and driving momentum.

"It's a very nice programme for a newcomer who's never been to a concert and a seasoned listener would know all these pieces well. They are much-loved pieces, as popular as ever and it's great to hear them live," he says.


See it, hear it

• The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pietari Inkinen, gives a concert in the Regent Theatre, Dunedin on Wednesday, November 21, at 6.30pm. They will perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A Major K 201; J.S. Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor BWV 1043 with soloists Pietari Inkinen and Vesa-Matti Leppänen; and Ludwig Van Beethoven's Symphony No 7 in A Major Op. 92.

Peter Walls will give a pre-concert talk from 5.45pm to 6.15pm.

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