"I've been longing to be part of a larger chamber music collective, and this is precisely what HCO represents to me."
Pianist Martin Malmgren has made himself known as a broadminded musician, equally at home on stage as soloist, chamber musician, Lied pianist and as collaborator with orchestras, ensembles and choirs. Having won several competitions in his native Sweden and in Finland, he is regularly heard at festivals and has performed with numerous orchestras across the Nordic countries and beyond, including Sinfonia Lahti, Tapiola Sinfonietta, Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, Torun Philharmonic Orchestra, Oulu Sinfonia, and numerous others. With an insatiable curiosity for music and with over 30 piano concertos in the repertoire, he actively performs vast swathes of standard and not-so-standard works, often undertaking ambitious projects such as performing the complete mazurkas of Szymanowski and the complete Etudes of Debussy. Since 2015 he has run the piano recital series Key Discoveries in Helsinki. As a founding member of Helsinki Chamber Orchestra, he functions as its principal orchestral pianist and is part of the artistic board.
After completing a Masters degree at the Sibelius Academy, studying primarily with Ilmo Ranta, Martin has furthered his studies with Konstantin Bogino in Italy, and participated in masterclasses with Robert Levin, Ferenc Rados, Henri Barda and Jerome Lowenthal. With an interest in historical performance practice, he has also taken part in fortepiano masterclasses with Malcolm Bilson and Bart van Oort. In addition to classical music, he is a longtime member of the klezmer/balkan ensemble Babalisk.
"I spend a lot of time searching and expanding my repertoire, turning over every stone imaginable, in search of music that in some cases has been neglected for no good reason whatsoever."
As a pianist, you wouldn't necessarily be the most obvious choice for an orchestra's founding member. What drew you to HCO?
Sheer curiosity got me here, and I couldn't possibly be happier about it! I tend to be interested in exploring the unknown, generally speaking. In musical terms this means that I spend a lot of time searching and expanding my repertoire, turning over every stone imaginable, in search of music that in some cases has been neglected for no good reason whatsoever. While this is an interesting activity for a nerd like me, it ostensibly results in knowing of an ever-increasing body of repertoire that has miniscule chances of attracting the interest of the average concert organiser or orchestra. What could be a better antidote to this dilemma than creating an orchestra of one's own?
Ever since we first started talking about forming HCO, our meetings have been a melting pot for fascinating ideas; I have known and worked with conductor James Kahane for many years and have been delighted to get better acquainted with our highly versatile concertmaster Aku Sorensen. Coming back to exploring the unknown, I have never previously been part of a regular chamber orchestra, and there is so much incredible repertoire involving piano that I am simply dying to perform! On a deeper level, for many years I've been longing to be part of a larger "chamber music collective" of sorts, and this is precisely what HCO represents to me.
As a founding member, what are your dreams for HCO?
With our first get-together behind us, I strongly feel that we have laid the foundation for an orchestra that encourages dialogue and where all voices can be heard. In a way, I hope that the orchestra will take on a life of its own, beyond the control of any almighty artistic director, making musicians feel that their ideas and input matter. It often happens in larger orchestras that many individual orchestral members feel like a tiny cog in a very large wheel, but I believe that the size of our orchestra makes it possible for everyone to feel important. From that starting point, I'm hoping that we will be able to explore both the classics and the unjustly neglected gems of the chamber orchestra repertoire with fresh ears.
"Planning a festival or a concert season is an art form in itself, and in essence also a form of composing."
One of your largest impacts on the Helsinki music scene has been as the artistic director of the Key Discoveries recital series. How has this experience impacted you as a musician, and as a member of HCO?
I've possibly become an expert on how NOT to run a festival! Joking aside, it has been a meaningful endeavour to give pianists a platform entirely free from restrictions, where they are actively encouraged to go their own way in terms of programming, repertoire, etc. It has also been very useful to step outside of the practicing room, where we musicians spend most of our time preparing for concerts, and to try instead to take on the role of a concert organiser. Musicians rarely think about marketing, festival planning, web design or fundraising, but the truth is that we would all be better off if we knew some basics in these areas. Having learned from previous mishaps, I can hopefully help HCO avoid making the same mistakes!
Other than that, there is a special sort of joy (and sense of responsibility) involved in planning a concert season, a process which is often started well over a year in advance. Few instrumentalists compose nowadays, and I'm no exception to that rule, but planning a festival or a concert season is an art form in itself, and in essence also a form of composing, not unlike what an art curator does when planning an exhibition. I've come to enjoy this process immensely.
How is working as an orchestral pianist different from soloing or performing as a chamber musician. How do you prepare for this?
Pianists are generally not in much demand as orchestral players, and most of us go through our formative years gaining very little experience playing in an orchestra. Perhaps it is this lack of comraderie, this lack of being part of a unit of up to a hundred other musicians, that turns some pianists into lone wolves! This also makes most of us absolutely terrified by tasks such as counting rests or following a conductor, which are mundane activities for any experienced orchestra player. While I've been very fortunate to work with several professional orchestras and ensembles, I'm absolutely thrilled to be able to do it on a more regular basis with HCO. I very much would like to believe that being orchestral pianist in a smaller chamber orchestra isn't all that different from playing chamber music, only that the number of players is somewhat larger. This probably requires even more careful listening to other players - if so, I'm very much looking forward to fine-tuning my ears with HCO as soon as the spring season kicks in.