Member of the Week - Sami Junnonen
Updated: Jan 27, 2019
"A musical interpretation should always be executed as a form of chamber music – I would like to call it “the inner chamber music”, i.e. a dialogue between one and the other. Even monologues contain dialogues: Questions and answers, light and shadow, strong and vague, contradiction and harmony, sound and silence."
Sami Junnonen has established a versatile international career by performing as a flute soloist with a wide repertoire from early music to contemporary works. Junnonen collaborates frequently with many of the most significant composers of our time. His 2012 Debut Recital at the Helsinki Music Centre as well as his 2018 debut with the Houston Symphony received outstanding reviews. Junnonen officially represented Finland on its centenary of independence by touring in Russia in 2017.
Junnonen has worked as a principal flutist in various orchestras, e.g. the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra of New Zealand, and the Royal Northern Sinfonia of UK. He has also worked as a performance teacher in flute and chamber music at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Junnonen releases music through Alba Records, Resonus Classics, and SibaRecords. He is a multiple prize winner in international music competitions.
Could you explain us briefly your about your personal experience, both as a soloist and an orchestra player?
My personal path as a flute artist has been so original and complex that it would take ages to put it in words. Perhaps someday in the future I write my memoirs with some surprising disclosures. What I can say at this moment is that success in the musical world has shown to be a bizarre mix of natural talent, devotion, perseverance, hard work, relationships, coincidences and luck. We live very hard times, and the world appraises hard values. Sensitivity in art, much taken for granted as an abstract by the public, is a real double-edged sword in tough and cruel professional world of music. But at the end, where there’s a will there is way, no matter how impossible it may seem.
What comes to the comparison between a solo artist and an orchestra musician, I would like to focus mostly in the value of the orchestral experience from view of a solo artist, because this aspect probably gets closest to my own personal story. I tend to call orchestra “the essential university of a musician”. In order to understand the actual nature of one’s instrument it must get reflected with other instruments and ensemble work. Thus, every soloist needs to understand the full concept of an orchestra. This concept teaches the ultimate practical knowledge of balance, tone colours, sound qualities, intonation, dynamics, phrasing, acoustics, instrumentation, harmonies, rhythm, and all the other musical fundamentals. Not to talk about the fantastic orchestral repertoire itself which provides us a whole musical universe! It is a very rich experience that cannot and should not be avoided.
As there is a strong emphasis on both the skills and the ideas that players can bring, how do you think you personally can impact the orchestra? What do you think you could bring to the orchestra that is unique to you?
I have been told my personality is strongly soloistic, charismatic and luminous. I take it as a compliment but in context of orchestral work there is more than meets the eye. A principal player in the orchestra has to possess an ability to balance leadership with teamwork, both artistically and socially speaking. From a brilliant singing or virtuosic solo line you have to be able to switch directly into a blending tone colour and supporting accompaniment within one second if that is what the score requires. Because of these reasons mentioned above, more than anything, orchestra is a school of communication for me.
Even if the orchestra repertoire is beautiful and tempting, I cannot see myself working in a full-time orchestra. First of all, I am too driven with my own solo career and artistic projects. Secondly, a full-time orchestra equals to a job. There is nothing wrong with holding a stable post, quite the contrary, but it does not make a perfect match with my personality and lifestyle. My inner child wants to be free, to keep art fascinating and fun, to keep it as something that is not an obligation but rather a volunteer process and an ambitious goal. Perhaps somebody else can combine a job and artistic freedom. But I cannot.
Helsinki Chamber Orchestra however seem to offer me a perfect opportunity to share the joy of orchestra playing without the downsides inevitable in a full-time orchestra. It is a group of devoted and talented musicians willing to make music together in periods. I am proud and honored to bring my skills and my knowledge to serve this new chamber orchestra the best possible way I can.
"What we call “new” or “contemporary” may actually just be multiple layers of different styles and periods being integrated or re-organized with each others. What we can do is change our point of view and re-examine music or any form of art every day in a different illumination."
It seems to be important for you to work with innovative and new ideas.
As artists, we ought to follow our time without ignoring the history and traditions. Our time basically equals to politics, environment, people and circumstances. Art always reflects on these same elements too. We have to see and understand time as a repeating cycle, remembering that time is only a concept created by us humans and therefore only an invented illusion to prevent us from getting deranged. What we call “new” or “contemporary” may actually be just multiple layers of different styles and periods being integrated or re-organized with each others. What we can do is to change our point of view and re-examine music or any form of art every day in a different illumination. This approach leads us to the real innovation and inspiration.
How do you think your own experience could be beneficial to the orchestra as a whole?
A brand-new group of musicians is a total adventure. It is impossible to estimate or predict the final result. Only time will show. Meanwhile, us musicians need to be patient and well-intentioned with each other as a group. Finding a sound inside of a section takes time, finding a sound for the orchestra takes even more time.
I truly hope my experience as a soloist, a chamber musician and an orchestra musician, more than 25 years, will serve our common purpose and goal the best possible way in order to find the ultimate and unique sound of our orchestra.
While the value of the orchestra is to share the leadership and break a bit the codes of hierarchy, could you explain practically what it means in a rehearsal situation and how you can contribute to the musical vision?
Throughout the history of the western classical music, orchestra has always been a very hierarchic institution. It may sound idealistic or even unrealistic to hope for a major change toward stronger equality inside this institution, but without idealism there is no progress. But one thing is for sure: It is people who create the work atmosphere. This fact applies to everybody in the orchestra: the conductor, the concertmaster, the principals, the tutti players, the general manager, as well as all other members of the administration.
As an active both orchestral and chamber musician, what is your overall opinion on the "chamber music-like" way to play in orchestra, and do you think it can also apply to larger groups?
In my mind, the term “chamber music-like” approach strongly associates with teamwork where each member of the group takes an active part and equal responsibility in recreating the musical work, aiming for a highly qualified, artistically interesting performance. Naturally, this is by far the ideal situation. However, if desired to achieve in the orchestra, a great deal of psychologically oriented work and decisions are required. This kind of approach is much easier to obtain in a smaller group, at least in theory: The more people, the more differences in opinions, views, politics, and social-behavioral manners.
Philosophically speaking, I think a musical interpretation should always be executed as a form of chamber music – I would like to call it “the inner chamber music”, i.e. a dialogue between one and the other. Even monologues contain dialogues: Questions and answers, light and shadow, strong and vague, contradiction and harmony, sound and silence. One instrument can represent many voices, roles, and characters just by itself.
This philosophy of playing, while spreading rapidly, seems also to still be somewhat rarer in orchestras in Finland compared, lets say, to other countries from central europe.
The answer of the general philosophy in music is quite shocking due to its simplicity: Competitions is sports. Music is not sports. Music is art. Art is expressing, communicating, understanding, learning, accepting, sharing, and receiving emotional experiences in a creative and merciful way.
Finland may still a bit too young country and culture to internalize this liberating truth of art. As people, we still have to carry heavy mental fallouts because of our history: More than once we have been under the control of foreign domination, without sovereignty. But the mental chain will be unlocked, eventually.
As a musician, you are a strong advocate for new music. What does modern music from living composers mean for you?
It is always fascinating and rewarding to collaborate with talented composers. One of my main tasks is to profile flute as a highly versatile and capable instrument in order to raise interest among the prominent contemporary composers worldwide. This way, there is a chance for a significant compositional addition on the flute repertoire as a result of my contribution.
"We often try to understand things we sense by reflecting on the past."
Why do you think that modern music sometimes meets resistance from the audiences?
I believe the biggest challenge in listening new music often develops when one desperately tries to understand what he or she hears. Contemporary music often consists of such complex (or alternatively simple) parameters that brain cannot possibly be prepared to analyze it by using common mindsets or patterns. We often try to understand things we sense by reflecting on the past. Sometimes it may work even in case of new music but we should keep in mind that the composer as well as the interpreters are actually trying to introduce us something unheard. I would personally recommend to approach new music by purely experiencing what we hear, with an open mind and soul.
What do you think can be done, from the orchestra/musician’s side, to help promote new music?
As people are very talented in associating with sensory experiences, this idea could provide a more easily approachable channel into the world of new music. Also, interartistic (or multiartistic) concepts seem to appeal to audiences nowadays. This genre opens a wide cultural platform yet to be explored in various ways.
"From the very beginning, the pop music industry realized how important the integration between the musical product and high quality visualization is. It is truly worth utilizing the best graphic designers and visual artists when talking about “visual music marketing”."
As a whole, what do you think are the ways for classical music to reach even more people than it currently does?
It would be a great thing to make people realize that art and music is for everybody rather than only for a marginal group that we tend to call the elite. Among youngsters classical music has become stigmatized for “not being cool”. I think we should aim to break the stiff preconceptions, and to reorganize the value system among different audiences and groups of people. How to bring music closer to people, that is another episode and requires lot of brainstorm.
Referring to the previous, I would also like to make a point of the significance of visual design in music marketing. From the very beginning, the pop music industry realized how important the integration between the musical product and high quality visualization is. It is truly worth utilizing the best graphic designers and visual artists when talking about “visual music marketing”, i.e. concert posters, websites, cd covers etc. I know it is a question of money. But I strongly believe that eventually the distinction would pay off.
If there would be one piece of your choice that could be played by the orchestra, which one would it be?
I would love to play as the soloist of Helsinki Chamber Orchestra, and I am more than happy to perform any flute concerto that fits the programming. Admittedly, I would be quite thrilled to propose Concerto Pastoral for flute and orchestra composed in 1978 by Joaquín Rodrigo, a piece that raises fear among the flutists due to its infernal technical demands. I would like to accept the challenge, and not least because it would be the Finnish premiere.
It would also be fantastic to play early music in our group because it is not forbidden to do that on modern instruments! It is only a question of good taste and awareness of affections.
I really cannot put my finger on one single work, but I can whisper the names of my three favorite composers, perhaps closest to my heart: Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Schubert, and Igor Stravinsky.