Tuesday, May 1, 2012

An Interview with conductor Sasha Makila

Conductor Sasha Makila
Finnish conductor Sasha Makila is wrapping up his two-year term as one of two Assistant Conductors with the Cleveland Orchestra. Recently appointed as the Music Director for the St. Michel Strings Chamber Orchestra, based in Mikkeli, Finland, Sasha graciously agreed to share some of his thoughts and answer some of my questions before he leaves Cleveland.

Announcing his appointment, the press release notes that he is “gaining recognition as one of the most prominent rising talents of his generation” and I must confess a personal bias – Mr. Makila is one of, if not, the most sociable and accessible I’ve had the privilege of meeting. Not to mention the concerts I’ve heard Sasha conduct have an unusually wonderful synergy between conductor and orchestra which makes for an utterly captivating sound. 

About His Time in Cleveland
“The only thing I wish is if I could have done this assistantship earlier,” Sasha avers, having conducted professional orchestras for the better part of a decade with an established guest conducting schedule, yet “I both learned a lot and benefited from being connected to such a great institution”.

With the institution came the opportunity to observe and learn beside a cadre of well-known guest conductors. I was a bit surprised by one of the other lessons learned when Mr. Makila noted that he “also learned how to work in a very efficient and fast way since all of my concerts with the Cleveland Orchestra were done with just one short rehearsal.”

“My debut with the Cleveland Orchestra is impossible to forget, of course.” Sasha remarks when asked about his favorite memory. “It was a Halloween concert where I was pushed onstage in a box of swords. And concertmaster Peter Otto was playing the violin solo of Dance Macabre dressed as Lady Gaga and with shades he could barely see anything through!”

Continuing, he mentions Beyond the Score conductor Andrey Boreyko being a surprise collaboration (here’s a post from Sasha’s blog), and Hans Graf [my post, Sasha conducted the women of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus off stage] who Sasha says “we share a passion of linguistics and learning new languages with him”.

Appearing on the Severance Hall stage not just upon the conductor’s podium but in the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus (he is nothing if not versatile),  “I cannot forget my performances in the ranks of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus - especially the last ones, singing Beethoven's 9th under the baton of Christoph von Dohnanyi.” [my post]

As A Musician and Conductor
Coming from a musical family (both parents play instruments and his mother is a professional musician) and studying Cello at the Helsinki Conservatory, Maestro Makila says he came to conducting by chance.

“I started conducting amateur and student groups and came to conducting kind of by immersion,” he says, “Without any plan or any grandiose dreams I just happened to conduct more and more until I was doing it more than playing my cello. But I think the deciding moment was when I met professor Korchmar in Russia. He saw in me something I could not myself see at the moment, and he had enormous faith in me and my talent. He really pushed me until I realized the fact that with the talent I have it is my duty and my responsibility to use it for this purpose. I cannot say there was a single moment of discovery, but after I left his class in St. Petersburg there simply was no return. Ever since, conducting has been a priority in my life.”

Based on the concerts and works I’ve heard Mr. Makila conduct (see the end of this post for a partial list), Professor Korchmar certainly found a talent. Since the connection between Maestro Makila and orchestra seems more responsive than many other conductors, with a more enjoyable sound I was eager to ask how he accomplishes that. His answer was fascinating:

“I think it is a combination of many factors. When you stand in front of a hundred musicians everything you do or say, or even your body posture, will have effect on the result. Your personality matters, too. I recently had a musician come to me after a concert and tell me ‘How nice it was to work with a nice person’. That player might have had hard time with ‘the other type of conductor’ before, and for sure she gave more of herself in my concert.”

“I try to be patient in the rehearsal and treat every musician with respect. I know everyone might have better and worse days, someone has a sick kid at home, someone is struggling with his mortgage, but it is a fine line to walk, you know. My ideal would be that when the first notes start to sound everyone would just forget about their problems and be transported in the pure realm of music and work towards one goal - a beautiful concert.”

“Then there is of course the matter of conducting technique. Many people come to tell me how I seem to transform the sound of the strings in any orchestra, and it has to do with the fact that I'm a string player myself. I know how to give the strings time to sound and what kind of conducting movements encourage a free and relaxed manner of bowing. Also, my teacher in Russia always told me to ‘draw’ the sound out of the orchestra, and never ‘beat’. Some players might have a problem with no beating but I say it just encourages everyone to listen each other more carefully!”

Looking Forward to Taking the Helm as Music Director
With his time in Cleveland coming to a close, Sasha has an exciting opportunity as Music Director of the St. Michel Strings, one of the first orchestras that he conducted on a regular basis “The chemistry between me and the musicians was always good,” he adds.

“A guest conductor does best if he’s not too picky and demanding for the week he is working with the orchestra, but the music director has the license to demand more since he will be with the orchestra most of the time.” Illuminating this point, “If I’m not happy with the way the musicians play certain things, I can continue working on them the next week. I really want to realize my ideal sound with this group and I am looking forward to the process”

The St. Michel Strings has been sailing without a music director at the helm for several years. “It’s not a healthy situation for any orchestra,” Sasha says, “and I know the musicians are eager to make a difference now that they again have artistic leadership”.

Asked about his expectations, “During the first six months I am going to demand a lot from myself. If I am not giving 100% I don’t have the right to demand that from my players either.” Being realistic, he doesn’t expect a huge difference in the Orchestra’s playing in the first six months but within a year, “I hope we have found our own way of interpreting certain core repertoire and will start to have our own recognizable sound,” with the goal of taking the orchestra on tour in two years.
And about that sound “During past years the Orchestra has played a lot of modern music, but I want to get us back to the core repertoire, which I know is in the best interest of our listeners as well. If there is a legacy to preserve, it is the versatility of the group which I hope not to spoil during my tenure”

Though Mr. Makila says that it’s a welcome change to live permanently in Finland again, he promises it won’t affect his guest conducting much. “I am traveling around the globe like before or even a little bit more” – hopefully those travels will bring him, and perhaps his new orchestra to Northeast Ohio… or I shall have to find my way to Finland.

(Some of the concerts I've heard Mr. Makila conduct include: The CIM Orchestra with works by Smetana, Sibelius, and Shostakovitch in 2011, the Kent/Blossom Chamber Orchestra portion of the Cleveland Orchestra's From Russia with Love, The Cleveland Orchestra's Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, and more)

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