'The role of music is to lift us above everyday life': conductor Kristiina Poska

On April 25, the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra will reunite with the orchestra's principal guest conductor Kristiina Poska. Latvian Radio's musicologist Baiba Santa Vanaga spoke to Kristiina about her conductor career, music, Beethoven, and more. The full interview is reproduced below.

Only a week after Easter, on 25 April, the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra will have a warm reunion with the orchestra's principal guest conductor Kristiina Poska in the concert LNSO, VASKS, AND BEETHOVEN’S FOURTH at the Cēsis Concert Hall. Alongside Pēteris Vasks’ Violin Concerto Distant Light, featuring Triin Ruubel, concertmaster of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, and Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony no. 4, the programme also includes the opus Phantasma by the contemporary Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür. At first, I thought – what a beautiful, yet somewhat motley assortment of pieces. However, this conversation with Kristiina convinced me that they are all interconnected. It also convinced me of the importance of following one’s dreams, finding the right focus, and appreciating the power of music more than ever before.

Baiba Santa Vanaga: What is the story about how you decided to become a conductor?

Kristiina Poska: My story is that I had never thought about this topic. I did not necessarily want to become a conductor, I wanted to become a musician. When I was around six years old, I told my mother I wanted to go to music school because I wanted to play the piano like my grandfather did. It was my own initiative and no one ever forced me to practise. Later, I knew that I wanted to go deeper into music and connect my future with it. We have a rich choral tradition in Estonia, just like in Latvia, so it is very common to study choral conducting.

Without knowing much about it, I decided to give it a try. I also thought that maybe my voice was not good enough for singing and becoming a pianist seemed too asocial. After trying choral conducting, I realised very soon how much it suited me and how much I liked it. At some point, I remember listening to a rehearsal of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra in Tallinn. In this rehearsal, I realised that it is the sound I want to live in and, since then, I dreamt of becoming an orchestra conductor because I was fascinated with the sound of the orchestra. For me, even today, it is one of the world wonders, if one can say so. My priority was not necessarily to stand in front of the orchestra, but, as I did not play any of the orchestral instruments, it was the only opportunity for me to be connected to it. So, I just followed this dream and went to Berlin to study orchestral conducting. One thing led to another. It was not that I wanted to become a conductor ever since I was a little girl. I think I did not even know what conducting is when I started studying music (laughs). It all came much later.

B.S.V.: Have you encountered any prejudice about being a woman conductor?

K.P.: The matter came up much later when I had already started my career. During my studies in both Estonia and Berlin, my professors never talked about it. It was always about music, conducting, and the scores. It was never about your gender. It was never a topic of discussion, and I never thought about it either. Maybe when you are inside a field, you do not see yourself from the outside and ask questions about whether a certain thing is normal. You just do what you want to do. Life itself and the people around me have always been very supportive, so it was never an issue. I became aware of this issue only after starting conducting at the Komische Oper Berlin. At the time, there was a lot of media interest due to me being a woman. Only then did I realise that it was out of the ordinary. I think I was lucky that this realisation came so late, because otherwise I might have had doubts. I have always had doubts about myself as a musician and as a person, but it was never about my gender. It was about whether I was enough to serve music. Every artist has these thoughts, they are totally normal. Yet, awareness of the gender matter might have been too much. I also realised that discussing it too often and focusing on it was harming me. That is why I just concentrated on my work. I do not deny that the issue exists, it does, but, at the same time, I do not think about it when I am working.  

B.S.V.: Which do you prefer: working with a symphony orchestra, a chamber orchestra, or staging an opera? 

K.P.: I have to admit that I love both symphony orchestras and opera. The latter is dear to me probably because of my background in choral conducting and singing. In opera, one has a lot to do with voice, which comes very naturally to me. At the moment, though, my main focus is on the symphonic repertoire, even if I always need some opera in my life as well. In brief, voice and choir music are my roots, but the orchestra is my big love. 

B.S.V.: How do you feel about the upcoming concert programme? It seems that every piece is very different.

K.P.: I feel that there is a very strong connection between all the works. Beethoven's Fourth Symphony and his music in general is a fundamental pillar of symphonic and classical music. In my opinion, symphonic music would not be where it is today without Beethoven. In his music, there is so much clarity and transparency, there is always a strong message. A very human message behind each symphony. At the same time, I feel the same qualities are prominent in the music of Pēteris Vasks and Erkki-Sven Tüür. Moreover, Tüür's Phantasma has a very clear reference to Beethoven, because the composer was influenced by Beethoven's Coriolan Overture in writing the piece. As a child, he found this opus among his father's records. It had such an impact on Tüür that it was one of the reasons why he became a composer. I also think that in the structure of Phantasma, especially at the beginning, there is a strong connection with Beethoven's Fourth Symphony. And, like I said, there is transparency and clarity in the form and the structure of his music.

The same qualities are present in the music of Vasks – his Violin Concerto is an absolute masterpiece! Besides, this work and Vasks’ music in general is characterised by strong timelessness, which is also a direct connection to Beethoven. One might say that Vasks and Tüür are quite different composers. At the same time, Estonia and Latvia are very strongly connected. Vasks has been a great admirer of the famous Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, one can also feel links to his music. The rhythmic side of music is of importance to Tüür, and the same goes for Vasks, but there is also a strong folk aspect. I might be going too deep, but the Baltic composers are greatly connected in their history. Vasks, in particular, has dedicated many works to those who suffered under the Soviet regime. I think that no composer is free from this influence. 

One can say the three composers are very different, but, for me, they also have strong links. They share  a clarity of structure and clarity musical language, as well as a fundamental message. None of them composes just for fun or for the sake of art – there is always a higher message, a human quality to the process.  

B.S.V.: For this interview, I listened to the Violin Concerto Distant Light by Pēteris Vasks. Although I am often sceptical about violin repertoire, this time I found myself wondering how can one possibly write something so beautiful. In fact, I always feel this way about Vasks’ music. 

K.P.: Exactly, I feel the same way. From the very first to the last note, the violin concerto captivates you completely. It is a most amazing piece of music.

B.S.V.: We know that you have a rich history with Beethoven as well – you are planning to record all his symphonies with the Flanders Symphony Orchestra. Have you already started work on the Fourth? What is special about it? 

K.P.: Yes, Beethoven is one of my all-time favourites! At the moment, we have recorded the First, Third, Fifth, and Seventh Symphonies with the orchestra. A few weeks ago, we had planned to record the Sixth as well, but we had to cancel it because I had contracted COVID 19. Schumann compared this symphony to “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants”. And so it is – if we think about the Third and Fifth Symphonies, they are so different from the Fourth. We have the Eroica with its massiveness and the Fifth, which is a dark symphony going towards the light. However, the Fourth is full of pure joy, brilliance, and lust for life. It was written during the period when Beethoven had just fallen in love with Josephine Brunsvik, his great love. Maybe there were also other influences, who knows. In Beethoven's symphonies, one always hears a variety of human emotional states in every extreme. In this symphony, it is extreme joy – so light, pure, and clear. This is something that we need now, maybe even more than ever. I believe this symphony is like a beautiful, bright gem among those giants and it needs to be played more! I am so happy that we will perform it in the concert on 23 April.

B.S.V.: Perhaps we are not used to a light and happy version of Beethoven.

K.P.: Yes, but this music still has the best Beethovenian qualities, even if there is no drama. It is so vibrant and full of light.

B.S.V.: What is the current role of music? You said that we need light now more than ever. 

K.P.: Interesting question. In my opinion, music has always had the role of bringing us into closer contact with ourselves. There is no right or wrong way to understand music. In opening yourself up, you might come into contact with certain parts of yourself that you do not encounter on a daily basis. I think the role of music is to lift us above everyday life, to see the bigger picture, to help us understand who we are and why we are here. Especially these days, we need harmony and peace more than ever. For example, as I mentioned, a few weeks ago we played Beethoven's Sixth. It is a pastoral symphony – it is related to nature, very peaceful, it does not have the depth or the darkness that is often present in Beethoven’s symphonies. I have always found this piece perplexing because it is too harmonious, there is no conflict. In particular, the fifth movement, it shows gratitude after a great storm. This gratitude goes on and harmonically it stays very simple – tonic, subdominant, dominant, and so on. What do I do with it? It is so difficult to find a dramaturgy for this kind of work. Especially nowadays, with a situation of war in Europe, which touches us so closely and even more so in the Baltic States. But suddenly the piece acquired a completely different meaning for me, because I realised that harmony and peace can no longer be taken for granted. Now, the gratitude expressed in the music suddenly has a whole different level. On the one hand, music has the power to connect us with ourselves, but it can also create harmony within us. In these days when there is so much fear, panic, and confusion, we need, above all, inner harmony and peace to make correct decisions and to stay sane. Music has the power to help us now. 

B.S.V.: Could you describe your synergy with the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra?

K.P.: It is a real pleasure to be connected to the LNSO, because I really admire the orchestra. It is of a very high quality and has nice people, which is also important. Moreover, I like their work ethic and attitude towards music and performing together. Technically speaking, the musicians are highly qualified and very homogeneous in their sound. Stylistically, the orchestra is also truly open and can play a variety of repertoire to a high standard. Almost any work can be performed with them, which is a true pleasure.

B.S.V.: Have you worked with Triin Ruubel, the first violin of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra? 

K.P.: Each time I worked with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, there was always a different concertmaster. It might have been about a year ago that I heard Triin play Erkki-Sven Tüür's Second Violin Concerto, which simply blew me away. My thought at the time was that I absolutely want to work together with her. Even if we are not playing Tüür, but Vasks. When we discussed the idea, Triin was delighted and said that she had always wanted to get to know this piece by Vasks, Distant Light. When I heard her play, I felt she had this special Nordic, or maybe even Baltic sound. It is very difficult to put this idea into words. There is a certain depth and, at the same time, clarity in the tone. I believe that Vasks’ Violin Concerto requires these qualities. As to expectations for next week's concert, I have none, one is generally happier when living without expectations. But I know for sure that it will be a wonderful event. 

B.S.V.: What is your ultimate dream in conducting? 

K.P.: Actually, I do not have a very good answer to this question. My general dream, and how I see myself as a conductor, is to be a medium working together with the orchestra to transfer the composers' messages to the audience. Personally, I am truly interested in the pieces that are imbued with existential topics that reflect different levels of what it means to be human. These messages are essential, they can make us better people or at least give us a greater understanding. To my mind, that is the impact orchestral music can have on society and that is also our task. The higher the level of our performance, the better we can get the message across. While I do not have one specific dream, my general dream is to have positive impact on society through music. I believe that music has this power.
 

English translation by Santa Elīna Kauliņa

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