Sakari Oramo has conducted his final concert as CBSO's music director at Symphony Hall. He talked to Terry Grimley about the orchestra and plans for his future role as principal guest conductor.
This is supposed to be an article marking the end of Sakari Oramo's decade as music director of the CBSO, but when we met during his concerts with the orchestra earlier this spring the conversation turned out to be very much about the future.
For while Oramo officially signs off from the CBSO's top job tonight with a programme combining Janacek's Sinfonietta and Beethoven's Choral Symphony, he will be back on the Symphony Hall rostrum in his new role as chief guest conductor in almost exactly six months time, with a concert which really does justify that overworked word "unique".
It features CBSO principal horn player Elspeth Dutch in the UK premier of the Horn Concerto by leading American composer Elliott Carter. The day is December 11 - Carter's 100th birthday - and all the signs are that he is likely to become the first significant composer in history to reach this milestone while still active.
"It's quite incredible, actually," says Oramo. "I happened to be at a concert in Carnegie Hall where this very jolly, very modest man was treated almost like a king. He's living proof that living your whole life in New York is very, very healthy!"
The concert also includes L'Ascension by Messiaen, who was born within weeks of Carter, and Elgar's Symphony No 1, which was premiered in 1908. It would have been perfect if Elgar had taught Carter: he didn't, but - astonishingly - Gustav Holst did.
Though a big name in American music, Carter still needs champions with British audiences.
"The pieces I know range from the 1950s, when he was already a mature composer," says Oramo. "I think they all have this very crisp, wonderfully integrated musical language. But it's not easy listening, it's music about music."
The other concerts Oramo will conduct in Birmingham in the second half of the 2008/9 season focus on two major themes. There is the continuation of the long-running Stravinsky project, IgorFest, with pieces ranging from The Flood to The Rite of Spring, and the other is a complete cycle of the six Nielsen symphonies to be shared with Halle Orchestra. Oramo will be conducting numbers 2,4 and 6, with Mark Elder and his orchestra taking over for 1, 3 and 5, with both orchestras playing in Birmingham and Manchester.
The programming, alongside Andris Nelson's debut season as music director, has been co-ordinated through chief executive Stephen Maddock, and Oramo says it has fallen into place quite easily.
"Doing the Stravinsky fits in naturally because it's part of a project that started years ago. The idea for the Nielsen cycle has also been around for a long, long time, but it required a lot of organisation."
Nielsen's Fourth Symphony figured in one of Sakari's first concerts with the CBSO, coupled with Brahms' First Piano Concerto in an eerie and entirely coincidental repeat of the only programme Simon Rattle conducted with the orchestra in Birmingham before he was appointed conductor. The Danish composer is far more familiar to British audiences today than he was at the time of his centenary 40 years ago, but Oramo thinks some advocacy remains to be done.
"I still think large audiences don't really get his message in quite the way we musicians would like to present it. I read once some famous conductor said of Nielsen's music that it has mastery, but it lacks mystery - which is perhaps how you can explain the difference in his reception to Sibelius, whose music doesn't lack mystery.
"Maybe it's the Hellenic clarity of Nielsen's music that betrays him slightly. There's always an athletic feel to a Nielsen piece. The poetic nature is there but it's playing second violin to this athletic strength."
How will Oramo's relationship with the orchestra change with his now more distanced role?
"In everyday terms it's actually exactly the same, but of course there will be less planning involvement. The main responsibilities of a chief conductor are to conduct many concerts and to plan the season. It's a kind of redirection of my personal energies and a new challenge, and that's what everybody needs from time to time."
While continuing at the helm of the Finnish National Radio Orchestra, Oramo will be taking over in the autumn at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic - the orchestra he was about to join when he was unexpectedly offered the CBSO job in 1997.
While his initial season with them will have a focus on Austro-German classics, in Helsinki he is will be exploring the music of the 1960s - Stockhausen, Nono and Berio - as well as that of Swiss composer Frank Martin: "A great composer, totally out of fashion today."
At the time of our meeting the CBSO was half way through a successful European tour, so Oramo had recent audience responses in mind when I asked him for his assessment of the orchestra at this hand-over point.
"I think they are in extraordinary form. As the tour and the receptions we received have shown, it is an internationally-admired orchestra for the quality of its playing. I'm sure the players will have a great time with Andris. and he will be able to take them forward with his very energetic, positive approach."
Though Oramo obviously faced a difficult task in following the Rattle era - something he now acknowledges he didn't entirely appreciate at the time - his achievement has been to maintain the orchestras' reputation while building his own international profile beyond recognition.
His emergence as an interpreter of British music has brought him particular kudos, with the performances of Elgar's three Birmingham oratorios - given on consecutive nights to mark the composer's 150th birthday weekend, with a spectacular additional performance of The Apostles at the Proms - represent a high-tide mark.
The main downside of the decade was a shaky financial period at the turn of the century, while there was also the challenge of having to replace numerous key players (though in contrast to the old days, hardly any of that was prompted by migration to more prestigious orchestras).
"The first four years went without any players leaving and then suddenly the tide turned and lots of people left the orchestra," Oramo recalls. "In a short time there were a lot of jobs to be filled and at the same time there was that near financial catastrophe in 2001-2.
"We've brought in really exciting new players. Some will be left to the future, like principal clarinet, bassoon and trombone, and it's just a matter of what Andris and the orchestra want.
"My belief has been that new people have to make the orchestra better than it was before."
It's natural, he says, that incoming conductors want to stake out new territory, whether in terms of a different slant on repertoire or a change of sound.
"I think the CBSO is serving a big purpose in the community here in providing and bringing forward the great tradition of classical music. That's why it's good to have the knowledge that someone I respect very much is going to take over.
"This is a really interesting place to work because it offers a lot of core things but also possibilities for other developments. The evolution has been huge, but the seeds were planted before my time."
* Sakari Oramo conducts the CBSO in music by Janacek and Beethoven at Symphony Hall tonight (7.30pm). He will be in conversation with Stephen Maddock about his 10 years in Birmingham and his new role as principal guest conductor at 6.15pm (Box office: 0121 780 3333).