Finnish conductors rule the CSO roost this season at Symphony Center

Finnish conductors appearing next season with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are Hannu Lintu (clockwise, from top left), John Storgårds, Mikko Franck, Klaus Mäkelä, Susanna Mälkki and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

For a country with a population of just slightly more than 5.5 million people, Finland exerts a surprisingly out-sized influence on the international classical scene, especially in the world of conducting.

It has produced an extraordinary array of top-level conductors, and six of the nation’s best known will be featured as part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2023-24 season: Mikko Franck, Hannu Lintu, Klaus Mäkelä, Susanna Mälkki, Esa-Pekka Salonen and John Storgårds.

No one knows for sure the secret of Finland’s classical-music prowess, but it starts with the country’s early childhood musical education. The country has some 100 music institutes, which are subsidized by the federal and local governments. According to the website of the International School of Music Finland, what it calls “music playschool” is the most common activity of Finnish children younger than 7 years old.

At the same time, Finland has about a dozen opera companies and 30 professional orchestras, including five in Helsinki alone. “Finland probably has more orchestras in relation to its population than any other country in the world,” according to the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras. “These orchestras are also remarkably evenly spread throughout the country.” Municipalities provide about 60 percent of the funding for orchestras, and the Finnish government supplies another 25 percent through the Theatre and Orchestra Act, passed in 1993.

“It is so ingrained in our culture; there is never a question about the government putting a lot of money into it,” said Osmo Palonen, director of advanced studies at Finland’s top music school, the Sibelius Academy, told the China Daily in 2020. “Music is for everyone in Finland, not just something for the elite.”

While Finland has excelled in virtually all aspects of classical music, it has gained acclaim for its conductors in large part because of the training at the Sibelius Academy, especially during the tenure of Jorma Panula from 1973 through 1994. He later taught in Stockholm and Copenhagen. Among his students are many of the conductors coming to Chicago, as well as such other luminaries as Osmo Vänskä (who appeared with the CSO last season).  

People often ask Franck about Panula’s teaching approach, but he said his mentor’s method is really about not having a method. “For him, it’s always about the student’s own natural abilities,” Franck said told Experience CSO earlier this year. “He’s not trying to make all the students be something that doesn’t come naturally. He wants to find for each student their own way and their own conducting language.”

That said, there are certain basic principles of the Finnish conducting school, and those include clear physical technique and consistent support of the musicians. “The biggest point is as a conductor, if you can’t help the musicians, at least try not to disturb them too much,” Franck said. “That’s kind of the golden rule that I also now try to [instill in] my students when I’m teaching.”

Here is a look at the six Finnish conductors leading the CSO in 2023-24:

John Storgårds, Nov. 9-11: He began his career as a violinist and was a founding member of the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, a Finnish ensemble devoted to chamber music. After directing orchestras as a concertmaster, he returned in 1993-97 to the famed Sibelius Academy to pursue conducting. In 2022, he was named chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, where he had served as chief guest conductor since 2017. The BBC Philharmonic has been nominated for Gramophone’s 2023 Orchestra of the Year Award (competing against the Chicago Symphony and eight other contenders). The centerpiece of his CSO program is the world premiere of Christopher Theofandis’ Indigo Heaven, with Principal Clarinet Stephen Williamson as soloist.

Mikko Franck, Dec. 7-9: Franck, who has served as music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France since 2015, regularly works with the Vienna State Opera and has an extensive list of significant orchestras he has conducted. With the CSO, he will lead a program featuring Symphony No. 7 by a fellow Finn, Jean Sibelius. Also on the bill is Hilary Hahn, CSO Artist-in-Residence and a frequent Franck collaborator, in Brahms’ Violin Concerto.

Hannu Lintu, Feb. 23-27: A native of Rauma, Finland, Lintu graduated from the Sibelius Academy in 1996 and subsequently served as the head of several Finnish orchestras. He became chief conductor of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet in August 2021 and takes up the same title with the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon in 2023-24. His CSO program opens with Ciel d’hiver (Winter Sky) by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, who died in June at age 70. (His CSO engagement includes a Feb. 22 concert at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in downstate Urbana-Champaign.)

Susanna Mälkki, March 21-24: Rumored as a candidate for the recent music director opening at the New York Philharmonic, Mälkki receives kudos wherever she goes. She stepped down as principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2022 and left as chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic earlier this year — moves that possibly signal a significant new post on the horizon. The centerpiece of her program is the world premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s Flute Concerto No. 2 with CSO Principal Flute Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson as soloist.

Klaus Mäkelä, April 4-6: Though just 27 years old, Mäkelä has already eclipsed the achievements of some conductors twice his age. In June 2022, the vaunted Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra announced that he would become its artistic partner in 2022-23 and then take over as the ensemble’s eighth chief conductor in 2027. For his CSO program, he teams with superstar pianist Yuja Wang in Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Please note: Pianist Yuja Wang has withdrawn from these concerts. Cellist Sol Gabetta makes her CSO debut in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, May 23-25: The most established of the conductors on this list, the 65-year-old Salonen became music director of the San Francisco Symphony in 2020-21 and has launched several groundbreaking initiatives with the ensemble. Following in the footsteps of Leonard Bernstein, he has achieved nearly equal fame as both a conductor and composer. Esa-Pekka Salonen has withdrawn from the May 23-25 performances for personal reasons. A replacement conductor will be announced.