“I didn’t aspire to be a conductor, but the work found me,” says Anna-Maria Helsing, Finland’s “maestra” –group’s rising talent. She doesn’t design a career, just believes that what will happen, will happen. “What I can do is to prepare myself well for the tasks.”
Anna-Maria Helsing is that new conductor on whom the eyes of many music directors have fastened in recent times. Her debut heading the Helsinki City Orchestra received immediate repeat invitations, and also the Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Tampere Philharmonic engaged her for the next season. Oulu, Vaasa, Jyväskylä and Lappeenranta are already familiar touring sites.
At the Finnish National Opera she shared performances of Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Mater with Ernest Martínez Izquierdo, and many musicians were of the opinion that she brought the music of Saariaho to life from a melodic point of view better than the well-known Spanish maestro.
This winter she will receive more training in London from Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel among others, and will be able to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra. Without any threshold she will step ahead of her own: she will serve as the artistic director of the Pietarsaari Orchestra and the Wegelius Chamber Strings. She will even make a record with the latter.
Pietarsaari has never been known as a proper orchestra city, but under Helsing’s guidance it has gotten some new wind in its sails. The city has a serious intent to establish nine half-days of musical performances, which could be combined with instruction. What would be involved would be a significant stride toward professional operations, since at this time the orchestra has no vacancies.
The Work Found Its Performer
Anna-Maria Helsing was born in the village of Munsala, which is part of Uusikaarlepyy. There such a unique kind of Swedish is spoken that it can scarcely be understood beyond the Gulf of Bothnia. “Of course there is a similar dialect in Northern Sweden,” Anna-Maria corrects.
She is from a religious family, where “pelimanni” music was played by the whole flock. Her family was not aware of the existence of a music school until the sister came home with a leaflet where they read that the application period was going on.
Anna-Maria’s violin studies at the Pietarsaari music school went smoothly, and transfer to a conservatory was natural. Her most important teacher was Pawel Radzinski, under whose tutelage she continued her studies in Poland at the Bydgoszczi music academy, where she earned a degree.
“A conductor has to persuade the musicians to do what they are supposed to do. Putting pressure on them only causes a bad atmosphere.”
The Pietarsaari orchestra had been part of her imagination throughout her study years. The young violinist progressed to be its concertmaster, held individual-part practices and sometimes stood in for the conductor.
“Early on I became aware that conducting was akin to teaching. I had done that work at the music school in any case, so there was no great threshold to leap,” Anna-Maria says. “In a way the work found its performer. At no stage did I purposely strive to be a conductor.
“When I got back from Poland, the director of training, Sören Lillkung, was crazy enough to ask me to become the orchestra’s artistic director. Some people warned me that it was a way to make enemies, but fortunately this did not turn out to be true. At first I conducted from my violin, until I changed over to a baton.”
Soon anyway, Anna-Maria Helsing became aware that she had reached a dead end in her choice of methods. “Now I must acquire some technique,” she decided, and applied to and was accepted into Leif Segerstam’s conductor class at the Sibelius Academy. Then for a little while she had to leave the violin behind, since in a couple of years she had to absorb everything she possibly could.
“Segerstam’s professionalism and dedication made a great impression. He emphasized the need to honor the musician’s work. A conductor cannot waste time learning in front of them, but the score must have been memorized and the technique perfected in front of a mirror.”
The A-course examination was next for her in 2007 before the Oulu Symphony. Grade: outstanding.
Everyone Must Have His Reason
Leif Segerstam gave examples in his ability to find images in the score and verbalize them: how, in Sibelius’ symphonies, ravens fly and worms grovel. Anna-Maria Helsing was astonished during rehearsals of the Helsinki municipal symphony, because Segerstam did not even begin to correct obvious errors in the playing, but instead, described Mediterranean waves to the musicians. And again astonishment: in the second iteration even the technical matters were all right!
Anna-Maria repeats a familiar fable about the sun and the wind, which were competing as to which could first remove a man’s coat. The wind blew mightily, but the man just drew his coat more closely around him. Then the sun shone, and lo and behold! the man himself removed his coat.
“In the same way a conductor must persuade the musicians to do what they are supposed to do. If you put pressure on them, that only creates a bad atmosphere,” the maestra says.
“A musician is the best judge of his own sound. He must be allowed to find his own best technique. The truth is always in the score, and a basis must be found for every interpretive solution. If the orchestra understands why I want what I want, it will surely come along.”
She does not see any magic in the conductor’s work per se, but surely in what happens between the conductor and the orchestra. “Many times you can’t express in words why something works or doesn’t work.”
Nowadays Anna-Maria feels more stress in the practice processes than in the concerts themselves. “After all, in a concert you only refine the result, but in rehearsal there are so many different roads to the final result.”
She has noticed that often it is only a waste of time if, as soon as the handshake takes place, she immediately begins polishing details and explaining intentions. “First you yourself must be able to create a total picture of the work, and if possible, in few words. Maybe then I’ll talk more, when I am wiser.”
Strenuous But Transformative
Anna-Maria feels that she was fortunate to grow up where she did. Even as a beginning musician in Pietarsaari, she had great challenges, and there was the opportunity of trying out different things. Attending the concerts of the Central Ostrobothnia chamber orchestra and also sometimes playing a gig in its ranks led one to believe that marvels can be wrought even in the countryside.
Still, the Polish romantic string tradition had at least as much influence on her concept of playing as did the stern conciseness of Juha Kangas. She was best able to implement her own ideas in the Wegelius chamber string orchestra, whose members are professional music students from different parts of Finland.
“My enchantment with playing is solidly based, but still richly billowy and flexibly sculptured. Saariaho’s Adriana Mater was a challenge precisely in a voiced spirit. Nevertheless, what is equally important in it is the structural side: how to keep spaces static but at the same time moving.”
Anna-Maria reminds one that she was the music director in Adriana Mater, and the crews changed in the performances, so that she could not do things very differently from Martinez Izquierdo. At the same time she penetrated an opera’s interior as the music director for King Karl’s Hunt.
She says that she greatly admires old maestros like Sergiu Celibidache, particularly because of how they can make strange things happen through craft. Still, she can identify more realistically with a conductor like Susanna Mälk. “She goes very directly to the matter and does productive work.”
Anna-Maria was admitted to training in London at the Allianz International Conductors’ Academy, as one of three successful applicants. That includes a basic knowledge of the work habits of London orchestras and also about orchestra conducting, and lessons with conductors. Last fall the counsel was given by Christoph von Dohnanyi, and in the second period in February it will be Salonen and Dudamel to be faced.
Anna-Maria Helsing does not want to design a career. With her feet on the ground, the benchmark is that she will also continue training as a violinist at the Pietarsaari Institute of Techology. “Things happen if they are supposed to happen. I will join conversations that seem agreeable. My hope is to prepare myself as well as possible. That should be enough.”