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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Mikko Franck - The beat generation

By Norman Lebrecht / May 27, 2004

These are tremulous times for symphony orchestras. A generation of music directors is over-ripe for retirement and there are no visible successors. The erasure of culture from public television and the collapse of classical recording has reduced maestros to sudden anonymity. Apart from Simon Rattle, Valery Gergiev and Esa-Pekka Salonen, no conductor under the age of 60 commands high street recognition in any world capital.

The loss of fame has created a transitional logjam. Musicians fearing for their jobs and benefactors for their millions are unwilling to take risks with rising talent. They persist with worn-out seniorities and then wonder where the young audiences have gone. Ask managers where their next music director is coming from and they give the look of a badger in headlights, furtive and petrified. Yet the musical grapevine is positively pullulating with news of a fresh bunch of batons on the up-beat, most of them thrillingly under 30.

Vladimir Jurowski, 31, and Tugan Sokhiev, 26, both Russians, have taken over at Glyndebourne and Welsh National Opera with (it must be said) more pronounced authority than the experienced Antonio Pappano at Covent Garden. Daniel Harding, 28, a Rattle protege, is running the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Philippe Jordan, 29, son of the Swiss conductor Armin Jordan, is music director in Graz. The Isareli Ilan Volkov, 26, is making waves in Scotland. All five are ready for the big time.

A sixth has got there already, and he's the youngest of all. Mikko Franck, at 25, has just been named music director of Finnish National Opera, a promotion which outranks Rattle’s arrival at the same callow age in Birmingham in 1980. Franck is also head of the Belgian National Orchestra. He has guested with the big bands of Berlin and Chicago and has twice cancelled the New York Philharmonic at short notice, yet they keep asking him back.

His performances alternate between incandescence and self-indulgence. Musicians never quite know what to expect. I first heard his name seven years ago when the Helsinki critic Seppo Heikinheimo called to say he’d seen a kid of 18 ‘with everything Esa-Pekka (Salonen) has got, and more.’ Players in Swedish Radio told me he did Tchaikovsky ‘like an old master’. An American conductor reported that his Magic Flute was ‘out of this world’.

Then the cancellations started. His back hurt. He had to conduct sitting down, unheard of for a young man. Orchestras began playing him up.

Franck is eager to explain his disability. ‘It began with a knee injury, playing football when I was 12,’ he relates. ‘It was a small thing, the patella was displaced, but they made mistakes during the operation and the leg was paralysed. I had many operations. Now the leg works fine, but I overused my right side and my back was affected.' He copes with prosaic stoicism. 'It doesn’t matter,' he insists. 'I conduct with my hands, not with my feet.’

Behind the impediment lies a history of childhood torment. Two years ago, after making a well-received debut recording of Sibelius, Franck demanded to proceed with Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony. When the label balked at the potboiler, Franck said he would record nothing else before the Pathetique, if he had to wait till he was 80. The resultant performance ripples with empathetic tension, informed by physical suffering. ‘I had that score with me in the hospital bed,’ he confides. ‘It has the smell of the hospital. It’s the most personal piece for me in the whole repertoire.’

He has been playing the violin since he was five and was good enough to get into the Sibelius Academy. The day before his 16th birthday, his class was given a chance to conduct the student orchestra. ‘I hesitated, but something pushed me forward. I did a couple of minutes from a Haydn symphony. Then Jorma Panula asked me to become his private student.’

Panula's is the hidden hand behind every Finnish baton from Salonen on. His pupil Sakari Oramo is Rattle’s successor in Birmingham; Osmo Vanskaa rules Minnesota; Jukka-Pekka Saraste is bidding for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Where other teachers work to a mould, Panula aims to bring out an expressive individuality. No two of his graduates sound alike. Against Salonen's clinical modernism and Vanskaa's structural certainty, Franck makes feeling his unfashionable priority. Musicians, he grumbles, are fixated on accuracy. ‘They are trained to get it perfect, not to make emotion.’

At Finnish Opera he inherits a company which, he says, 'has not used its potential very well.’ In a glistening lakeside building and with a renewable flow of singing talent of the calibre of Karita Mattila and Soile Isokowski, the house fails to pack an international punch. ‘The problem is money,' says Franck, tersely. 'I need ten more musicians in the orchestra. It’s a constant battle to get enough rehearsal.’

Working in his mother tongue amounts to a homecoming of sorts, but only of sorts. When I ask about his upbringing he admits to being the youngest of five. His father was a restaurant pianist, his mother a child minder. ‘They live in Helsini, I think,’ he shrugs. ‘I’m not in contact for the last three years.’

A falling out? ‘No, nothing very traumatic. We were never a nuclear family. After we grew up, the contact was seldom. I’m in touch with my eldest brother who is also my best friend. I bumped into him on the street one day after not seeing him for seven years. I thought he looked familiar. I said, Hi, are you Ville?. He said, yes, are you Mikko? So we went to have a beer and became best friends.’

When Mikko was announced as the new head of the national opera his father left a short message on his answer machine. Franck hasn’t bothered to reply. ‘That’s how things are in our family,’ he says.

He lives mostly in Brussels, monastically alone. ‘I’ve been single for exactly three years now,’ he says. ‘I was engaged, twice. Then I decided to take time off to get to know myself. It’s not easy if you’re with someone all the time. You start living through the other person, or trying to please them.'

Self-knowledge, he feels, has been his strength in adversity. When the back problems kicked in, ‘I felt a complete failure. I was letting so many people down. But in a way it was good experience. I now appreciate every time I go on stage. It has been three years since I cancelled anything. But I know it might happen again.’

There is something prematurely aged about this serious contender who makes no concession to modern attitudes even in his leisure wear. At 25 Mikko Franck is fully formed and assuming massive responsibilities. The future of conducting rests in hands like his. What will it take to make the world's great orchestras wake up to the generational renaissance?

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001