When the Helsinki-born conductor Sakari Oramo, then just 33 years old, took the top post at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1998, he had the unenviable task of succeeding Sir Simon Rattle, who was legendary for transforming what had been a backwater orchestra into a world-class ensemble. On December 12 through 17, New York Philharmonic audiences will have a chance to hear why this young maestro's star is rising fast. His name cropped up on the short lists for several open U.S. orchestra posts last year. Next season he takes the helm of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Meanwhile, he'll continue with Birmingham, recording for Erato the last two symphonies in a Sibelius cycle.
Looking back on his appointment in Birmingham, Oramo recalls, "I was daunted, yes, but I had support from the players. And as we worked hard together, Birmingham gradually became my orchestra."
Oramo says his first task was to improve the string sound. A violinist himself (he still performs and records), he gives his rehearsal instructions "as one string player to another. I don't tell them what kind of sound I want," he explains. "Instead I say, for instance, where to play on the bridge. But I leave them to find the best bowings themselves. I like an orchestra sound with a very strong string bass, which gives the string section confidence and the music a solid foundation." For the winds and brass, he concentrates on how to support their breathing, something he learned about from his wife, the soprano Anu Komsi.
On the program for his Philharmonic debut is Symphony No. 4 by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. Subtitled "The Inextinguishable," the symphony was written in the shadow of World War I. Oramo observes that it is especially meaningful after the events of September 11: "Nielsen's symphony is about the fundamental belief that the human spirit will overcome any external tragedy, no matter how powerful. It encompasses distant tender memories of childhood. There is a lot of trouble before the ending, but ultimately the human spirit comes out the winner."
Johanna Keller was a 2002 USC Annenberg Getty Arts Journalism Fellow in Los Angeles.