When Sakari Oramo took over the CBSO from Simon Rattle in 1998, the Finnish conductor came with a self-imposed mission, which was to explore the music of English composers.
And during the decade of his tenure, he did indeed make huge strides along his chosen path, unearthing forgotten treasures by John Foulds (of whose music he made two CDs with the orchestra) and Frank Bridge, for example.
He also achieved marvels with already well-known works by repertoire composers, not least a memorable concert-performance of the opera Peter Grimes by Bridge’s pupil, Benjamin Britten, one in which Symphony Hall itself seemed to take on a whole new personality.
Perhaps his greatest triumph in the field of English music came during the sesquicentenary year of Elgar’s birth in 1857, when in three consecutive evenings he conducted the CBSO and its tremendous Chorus in all three of the composer’s great oratorios: The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles and The Kingdom. The gruelling task he had set himself and his forces came off with spectacular success, and two years later Sakari was made an honorary OBE for his services to music in Birmingham.
After leaving the CBSO Sakari took up prestigious positions with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (with whom he had made his conducting debut as a last-minute stand-in in 1993), and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, where he remains principal conductor and artistic adviser.
And then, after a single concert with the orchestra, he was invited to become chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
He conducted his first Henry Wood Promenade Concert with his new forces last year, but this year he is a presence in force, and not just as a baton-wielder, making contributions, too, as violinist and orchestrator.
Tonight (Thursday) he makes his first appearance of the season, conducting his BBC Symphony Orchestra in a programme beginning with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, continuing with the UK premiere of the BBC co-commissioned Duende – the Dark Notes by Luca Francesconi, Leila Josefowicz the violin soloist, and ending with Stravinsky’s stark opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, its Sophoclean text reworked by the great French poet Jean Cocteau.
On Monday Sakari moves from the Royal Albert Hall to the new Cadogan Hall, relinquishing his baton for the violin he once told me he takes everywhere he goes “doing at least 15 minutes practice a day” to join Janine Jansen in Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins.
Two days later he returns to home base at the Albert Hall for an early-evening concert (the Proms schedule juggles about so much, and with so many strands of genre nowadays, you never know where you are). This one is all-English, including one of the rarities so dear to Oramo’s heart, William Alwyn’s Symphony no.1.
The rest of the programme is better-known, and all Vaughan Williams: the Wasps Overture, The Lark Ascending (Janine Jansen popping up again as the violin soloist), and the saxophone-fuelled Job: a Masque for Dancing.
On August 23 (two days after Sakari’s successor, Andris Nelsons, conducts CBSO forces in Britten’s War Requiem in the Royal Albert Hall), he presides over a fairytale programme: Ravel’s Mother Goose ballet, Szymanowski’s Songs of a Fairy Princess (Mrs Oramo Anu Komsi the soprano soloist), the UK premiere of Jukka Tiensuu’s Voice Verser, and concluding with Rimsky-Korsakov’s evocative, time-travelling Scheherazade.
And so we come to the “biggie”, the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday, September 13, when Sakari will make the all-important concluding speech to the hyped-up Prommers. His programme refreshingly moves away from the over-worked format, and begins with the world premiere of the BBC-commissioned Velocity by Gavin Higgins, followed by the world premiere of Tim Rice’s choral lyrics to Malcolm Arnold’s stirringly and disturbingly topical Peterloo Overture.
Janine Jansen takes the stage again as soloist in Chausson’s Poeme and Ravel’s Tzigane, and there are contributions, too, from soprano Elizabeth Watts and tenor John Daszak (the eponymous Peter Grimes as mentioned above).
The other soloist is the Midlands’ and the world’s favourite baritone, Roderick Williams, singing his own arrangements of Ol’ Man River and Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho.
Thankfully, at last there is no Henry Wood Fantasia on British Sea Songs (so no opportunity for hoorays to flaunt their handkerchiefs during the poignant Tom Bowling). Instead Sakari brings us another British rarity, Ansell’s Plymouth Hoe.
And even after the obligatory Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory he brings another surprise, ending with the National Anthem in the arrangement by Benjamin Britten.
* Sakari Oramo’s Prom performances are broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. His recording of Elgar’s First Symphony is available on BIS-1939.