Finnish composer Sauli Zinovjev anticipates his first major U.S. premiere

Sauli Zinovjev's Batteria receives its U.S. premiere in CSO concerts April 4-6, 2024, conducted by Klaus Mäkelä

Maria Svidryk Photography

No work has done more to transform Sauli Zinovjev’s career’s than Batteria, which thrust the 35-year-old Finnish composer into the symphonic world and has significantly boosted his profile around the world.

The 11-minute work, written for the Finnish Broadcasting Co., and premiered by the Finnish Radio Symphony in 2017, was Zinovjev’s first commissioned work and his first mature composition for orchestra — two key milestones.

Klaus Mäkelä, who is set to take over as chief conductor of Amsterdam’s famed Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2027, has become a fan of Batteria, leading performances of it with that ensemble as well as orchestras in Munich and Tokyo.

The Finnish conductor will oversee the American premiere of the piece during an April 4-6 set of concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that will also feature Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10.   

“He’s been championing this piece and helping me in this way quite a lot,” Zinovjev said. “And now it’s coming to the U.S.A. for the first time.”

The composer has had what he called a few minor works performed in the United States previously, but he downplayed those. “I consider this my U.S. debut,” he said. “It’s a very big deal to me.”

“I consider this my U.S. debut. . . . It’s a very big deal to me.” —Sauli Zinovjev

The work’s title, Batteria, is an Italian word that means “battery” and carries several meanings — an electric battery, a bank of military cannons and a drum set. “I felt like I was always doing slow music, so I wanted to do something fast,” he said. “I wanted to have it charged. That’s why it’s Batteria.”

Zinovjev sought to create a propulsive work coursing with drama. “It has a direction, the music, it’s going through different situations and it’s progressing,” he said. “It’s not a character piece in one mood. It’s moving and it’s challenging itself and leading you to new situations, which then develop into one another. So, in a way, it’s a roller coaster.”

In his accompanying notes for the piece, the composer indicated that the piece has three loud chords like church bells that were inspired by acts of terrorism that took place in Paris, Brussels and Nice while he was composing the piece. “Dedicated to life — à la vieBatteria is not, however, a political statement; rather, it is purely and simply humane art from one individual to another, privately and personally.”

In his Experience CSO interview, Zinovjev emphasized that he has no “agenda” in his music. “It’s so popular nowadays to use art to fight against climate change and these kinds of things,” he said. “I try to say outside of this. I just observe the world and offer a view of it without any idea of teaching people anything. That’s not to put down the political things, but there are other ways of art happening. I’m a humanist.”

Much attention has been paid to the plethora of top-notch Finnish conductors on the international scene, including Susanna Mälkki, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Osmo Vänskä. But according to Zinovjev, Finland has a bustling composing community as well even if it has not achieved the same kind of international visibility.

He attributes the country’s thriving state of composition to the enduring legacy of Jean Sibelius, who remains a well-respected cultural figure in Finland, and to Finnish society “quite strongly” valuing contemporary music. “We think it’s a good thing, and composers get quite a lot of support in Finland,” he said.

After beginning a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree track at the Sibelius Academy in 2010, he went on to spend 2013–14 studying abroad at Karlsruhe’s University of Music in Germany under composer Wolfgang Rihm. He finished his studies in 2015 and immediately launched his professional career.

During his student years, he scored an early breakthrough in 2014 with Gryft, which won third prize at the International Uuno Klami Composition Competition and was premiered by the Kymi Sinfonietta. “It was a start,” he said. “It was the first piece that got professionally performed.”

The work drew on techniques he was exploring in his studies as well as elements of post-modernism that have largely disappeared from his music now. “Aesthetically, I don’t find that piece so important to me anymore,” he said. “It was a stepping stone into a new expression that I then continued to work.”

Orchestral music remains Zinovjev’s main focus, and he is putting the finishing touches on a 40-minute, symphony-like work that he has been working on for a couple of years. In addition, he has almost completed a percussion concerto that is scheduled to be premiered in Europe next season with soloist Vivi Vasilieva.

Is the composer interested in trying his hand at choral or operatic music? “Interested? Yes,” he said. “Skillful enough? Probably not.” According to him, working with the voice and text is a “world of its own.”

“Probably at some point that would be nice, but I don’t feel that I have to rush into every genre now,” he said. “Also, if I commit to an opera, it’s easily three or four years of my time, and I should be really sure that the libretto is really good and that I’m capable of doing the work.”

For now, Zinovjev is focused on his upcoming trip to Chicago for the American premiere of Batteria. “I try to go all of my orchestral performances, especially if they are as high profile as Chicago is,” he said. “I would regret not coming to hear it.”