"The deep trust in the orchestra’s capability means exploring previously uncharted technical and musical ways of doing things."
James Salomon Kahane, aged 23, is the Principal Conductor of the Helsinki Chamber Orchestra and one of its founding members. He also holds the position of Conductor of the Polytech Orchestra, and served as assistant conductor to Susanna Mälkki at the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. Originally from Paris, France, James has been led to conduct major orchestras across Europe and to take part in prestigious music festivals, such as the Lucerne Festival, the Tanglewood Festival, and the Gstaad Menuhin Festival.
In Spring 2018, along with other international musicians, James has contributed to creating the Helsinki Chamber Orchestra, following a shared vision and ideal of music making.
How did the idea of creating the HCO came up?
The initial idea of creating the Helsinki Chamber Orchestra arose somewhere in early 2018. One of the things that sort of prompted the whole initiative, was that for some reason there didn’t seem to be any established professional chamber orchestra in Helsinki. Finland has an impressive amount of orchestras, which makes the musical life very rich, but there seemed to be a void in Helsinki that could be filled, repertoire-wise, between the well-advocated symphonic music and the chamber music for up to around 8 or 9 players. I believe that the reason for that is that many Helsinki-based orchestras started as chamber orchestras, but are either specialized in a very specific kind of music (for example, baroque or modern music), or simply grew little by little and eventually turned into full-size symphony orchestras. This observation, which was combined to many other factors, such as my long-term desire and ambition to durably implement chamber-music-like ways of playing in orchestra, my wish to promote many different styles of music, the keen interest that some institutions and musical figures were expressing, but most of all, the personal involvement of extremely talented musicians with whom I have a special musical relation, eventually led to the birth of the Helsinki Chamber Orchestra.
The ideas and vision we had with our concertmaster, Aku Sorensen, our Principal Pianist, Martin Malmgren, and other musicians, were so overwhelmingly strong that it just felt that this orchestra had to be created.
It seems that in a sense the human factor is a key component of your group.
Absolutely. And even more so because we are deliberately so few. While I wouldn’t call myself an elitist, there is definitely an idea that we want the orchestra to be a concentrate of raw talent, not just in the pure musical technic, but also taking into account the individual personalities of the players. In that sense, I think that what we are doing with this orchestra is really beautiful, because we are not only concentrating sheer musical faculties, but also creating a unique psychological environment that allows each player’s full musical vision to be expressed without any restraint. Every musician who performs with us is here for so many more reasons than just their orchestral-playing skills.
In that kind of environment, how would you define your role as conductor within HCO?
Well, in a sense you could say it becomes easier, because the ensemble is on a level where it’s very apparent that they don’t even need a conductor. I could literally walk out the door in the middle of a rehearsal and they would still be able to pull out a very good concert, perhaps even without too much effort. So in my opinion, this is actually where the real challenge begins for the conductor: how do you stay relevant in a group that factually doesn’t need you? The thing is, they probably don’t need you in a sense that they don’t need a traditional conductor that tells them what to do. However, and this leads me to my role in the orchestra, if channeled in the right way by the conductor, the music making can be magnified and potentially reach new expressive and even technical heights. This is quite tricky, because it makes me rethink my whole technique and it means that I have to “tune” my conducting and rehearsing specifically for this orchestra. At this level of playing, beating and being clear becomes laughably insufficient and sometimes completely irrelevant, and at the same time, the deep trust in the orchestra’s capability means also exploring previously uncharted technical and musical ways of doing things.
"To me, it's extremely important that every musician feels like they are responsible for even the deepest layers of the music making, and that they pour something from their hearts into their playing."
You were mentioning ideas about implementing chamber-music-like ways of playing in orchestra.
Yes. By that I mean, and this is sort of a Don-Quixotian-like personal vendetta, that I believe that at the moment there is a bit too much emphasis on the importance of the conductor within the orchestra. Granted, much less than before, but still. We are, when it comes to orchestra life, in a very vertical form of leadership, with the conductor having a nearly absolute musical power. This is less true when orchestras have their own strong traditions or when they are somewhat smaller, but still, the idea is that the conductor is almost entirely responsible for the musical vision. Of course, there are very practical reasons for that, but I think it becomes a problem when the players don’t feel empowered or rewarded for their own musical initiative. To me, it’s extremely important that every musician feels like they are responsible for even the deepest layers of the music making, and that they pour something from their hearts into their playing, even in an orchestral context. I want to act more as a guide proposing and harmonizing a musical vision involving every single player rather than as a superior figure compelling people into my own personal belief about a piece. I have always admired the few conductors who really knew how to do that, and their music is absolutely mind-bending. Deep down, this is who I really want to be as a conductor.
There are a lot of debates and opinions today about the relevancy and outreach of classical music and it's future. What would be your take on that?
Essentially I’m not that concerned about the future of classical music, or at least what we call classical music. In a way, I believe the classical music world is paying the toll for the way it willingly presented itself in the 20th century, namely as a very elitist form of art, not only from the performer’s side but also from the listener’s. During a certain period the classical music audience was very aristocratic, and in a sense, it was really not spreading below a certain social status. But things are changing, and rather fast actually, and I see great things happening everywhere that are making western classical music more and more accessible and popular.
How do you think HCO can contribute to that?
I would say that we contribute to this outreach in two different ways. First of all, we have plans in the future of doing innovative performances that would be very interesting for the non-traditional classical music goers. We are having a lot of talks internally and there really is a profusion of innovative ideas, and soon you will be hearing a lot more about those. Second of all, our regular program making aims to bridge music to broader historical contexts and to artistic or philosophical ideas. I think that for some people a concert may very often feel like just listening to one beautiful piece after another. While I would certainly enjoy that, I think that it’s not necessarily the most engaging way to proceed. We would like to give the option to our audience to be really active when listening to our performances, and even though every piece that we perform is a world by itself, their links with each other can deeply strengthen their understanding by people who don’t usually go to classical music concert, which I think is a key difference and a very efficient way to fight potential incomprehension about a composition.
Does HCO reflect a deeper societal change in that aspect?
This is a rather delicate question. My point of view is that more than ever we are in a world of individual empowerment and awareness, for both historical and technological reasons. At the same time, we generally aim to make the society better, and the values of the enlightenment have a strong influence on that process, and I don’t mean that in a naively optimistic way. Mostly we think that people should be treated equally and be free, whether that’s actually what happens or not. The individual and collective expression have also become more and more important through the growth of all means of expression. In a way, HCO relates to that aspect of the evolution of society because we are creating an environment where people are equal no matter where they are seated or standing, and where their individual expression is really valued.
How does it affect the overall music making?
I believe it is really stimulating for the musicians to be solicited on every level of the music making and not just for their playing ability. The result of this way of functioning is that the communication between the musicians is also greatly enhanced, and that creates a formidably strong link between all of them. There are moments where the level of collective understanding is so strong, that it basically feels like all of us are constantly reading each other’s mind. The synergy within the orchestra is really unique, and the level of energy on the stage when playing is simply off the charts. When working with this group, there really seem to be some kind of magic at work, and I can’t wait to share this magic with the public in our upcoming concerts.