Conductor John Storgårds embraces his musical bond with a fellow Finn

Jean Sibelius casts an enormous musical shadow over Finland, but John Storgårds doesn’t shy from it.

The Finnish violinist and conductor made his debut in 2017 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Sibelius’ First Symphony. In putting together his upcoming program for Nov. 9-11, he requested to open the evening with the composer’s lesser-known tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter.

“I don’t feel any pressure as a Finnish conductor,” Storgårds said by phone recently from Helsinki. “I’m asked to do many other things. And I love Sibelius. I’m never against conducting it, if it’s less common repertoire.”

In addition to his music career, Sibelius was a national icon and a figure in the Finnish independence movement. During and soon after his lifetime, Storgårds said, many other Finnish composers lived in his shadow, and “they didn’t hate him, but they also suffered.”

In the active Finnish composing scene today, however, “Sibelius is an inspiring and important composer in the background, part of their roots,” he said. “Finnish orchestras are pretty careful to make sure that all Finnish composers get performed.”

Those composers run the gamut of styles, he said, but “they’ve all grown up knowing Sibelius’ music and being in touch with it.” Storgårds himself has benefited from his long association with the Helsinki Philharmonic, which gave many of Sibelius’ world premieres and has the original scores in its archives.

“I don’t feel any pressure as a Finnish conductor. I’m asked to do many other things. And I love Sibelius. I’m never against conducting it.” — John Storgårds

The main work on his CSO’s program is the Third Symphony of Sibelius’ contemporary, Sergei Rachmaninov. “It’s a pity that it’s not played as often as the Second,” Storgårds said. “It doesn’t have the kind of tunes that the Second does, where people can go into the street humming the melodies. But I see the Third as a masterpiece in another way. It’s much later, and he’s a master in shaping and orchestration.”

And the concerto slot, in a late revision, is filled by Karen Gomyo performing Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1, a piece that Storgards has both played and conducted — in fact, he gave the Finnish premiere in 1995. “I know a lot of repertoire from the point of view of the violinist, too,” he said. “Most soloists see that as a good thing.” He and Gomyo have collaborated in the past, although not on the Glass work.

Storgårds maintains a busy schedule as both a conductor and soloist. “I really enjoy it when they’re in good balance with each other,” he said. “I’m a better conductor when I’m in good shape on the violin.” And in giving directions to the string sections in an orchestra, “it helps if I can say to them things like, ‘A little more to the tip of the bow.’ ”

Historically, the path to conducting often led through being a pianist, but several other currently active conductors also maintain careers as violinists; Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider is another who led the CSO this season. “It’s very natural to be a musician doing many things, to conduct and play an instrument,” Storgårds said. “But I don’t compose.”

Actually, he tried composition seriously enough as a teenager that he made a deliberate decision to focus elsewhere. “Being a performer and composer, in my case, was too different from each other,” he said. “I needed time and silence to compose.” When he became interested in conducting decades later, however, he had a head start on the skill of score reading from his composition experience.

Now as a conductor, he appears regularly with most of the major orchestras of Europe and North America. “The Chicago Symphony is a world-class orchestra, and I’ve enjoyed both my visits very much,” he said, referring to his runs in 2017 and 2019. “I’m very happy to be invited back a third time.”