Why do Finns never hire foreign conductors?

Why do Finns never hire foreign conductors?


norman lebrecht

April 13, 2022

The Helsinki Philharmonic this morning installed Jukka-Pekka Saraste as its next chief conductor.

He succeeds Susanna Mälkki, who took the baton from John Storgårds, heir to Leif Segerstam. Got the picture?

The new principal guest conductor will be Pekka Kuusisto.

In other words, the Helsinki Phil applies a closed shop Finns-only policy.

Is that just, fair and legal in an EU member country?


  • RW2013 says:

    Never understood the fuss about him.

  • Ellingtonia says:

    Yes………….I think it’s called growing and rewarding “your own” (unlike the UK). And do let us know how many applied for the job, I presume you have the details given your statement.

    • Enginpianist says:

      In England 49% of all conductors in professional orchestras are foreigners. In Spain 70% of all principal conductors / music directors / chief conductors in professional orchestras are foreigners. That’s the world we live in…

      • Anon says:

        Yes, but look at the no. of Spanish conductors working OUTSIDE of Spain: Gustavo Gimeno, MD of Toronto, Jaime Martin, MD of LA Chamber Orch, Pablo Heras-Casado & Juanjo Mena, where ever they are in the world now. There are many more.

        Top Spanish conductors are not working in Spain by choice. Spanish orchs don’t pay as well, are less prestigious & are often embroiled in complicated political situations which can affect artistic decisions.

        Foreign conductors are occupying Spanish positions mostly because the best Spanish conductors don’t want those positions.

        • Marsi says:

          In an interview, Heras-Casado stated that half of the orchestras in Spain has never even invited him. But you are probably right, the best Spanish conductors prefere a position elsewhere.

  • Iris says:

    Wonderful choices all around. You failed to mention Anna Clyne will be the resident composer. And let’s not forget Finnish Radio hired a Brit.

  • Peter says:

    If you have the best apples in our own garden, why go to the neighbour?

  • Michael says:

    Given the extended contact one expects a chief conductor has with his/her orchestra, I would imagine one of the most important requirements would be fluency in the language of most of the players: it is very unlikely that this would be contrary to EU employment law.

    Given the fact that there is limited knowledge of Finnish outside Finland, it is hardly odd that the Helsinki Philharmonic has chosen a series of Finns to head THEIR orchestra. Of course, I presume that most of the orchestra have – like most Scandinavians – a good command of English, but that doesn’t overrule any wish to have a CHIEF conductor fluent in their own language!

    Incidentally, how many examples are there of British orchestras choosing chief conductors who did NOT have a fluent command of English?

  • Finn says:

    The Radio Symphony Orchestra has Nicholas Collon as their chief conductor.
    And, can you name a non-Finn who would be a better chief conductor to Helsinki Phil than Saraste? I certainly can’t.

  • Hugo Preuß says:

    Why would it be illegal, unless you actively discriminate against applicants from outside Finland? Presumably, the ability to speak Finnish might be helpful to land the job. Or familiarity with Finnish music (more than just Sibelius).

  • OkLaHome says:

    I suppose their decisions are theirs; what’s the real crime here is the idea that Pekka Kusisto should be in charge of anything other than a cactus

  • msc says:

    An organization has a right to consider cultural fit as a factor. That includes language. Familiarity with candidates can also help assess the suitability of a match. I’m not defending it in all cases, but it is understandable.

  • Piston1@att.net says:

    Another day, another euro in the Finnish school of conductors — the most over-rated in the world — in which everyone is basically a carbon copy of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who’s fully booked.

  • Fliszt says:

    Aren’t all conductors trained in Finland anyway?

  • Andreas C. says:

    The Helsinki Philharmonic had the late Sergiu Comissiona briefly at its helm in the 1990s, but his term was widely considered a disappointment. It’s not necessarily to elaborate, de mortuis nil nisi bonum. The Tampere Philharmonic also (probably the best full-sized non-Helsinki orchestra in Finland) had Leonid Grin and Eri Klas in the 90s, with better results.

    The Tapiola Sinfonietta (a very good chamber orchestra based in a Helsinki suburb) doesn’t have a chief conductor in the usual sense, but was for a long time successfully directed by Jean-Jacques Kantorow, and has had also engaged Stefan Asbury, Mario Venzago, Alexander Melnikov, and Ryan Bancroft as “artistic partners”.

  • MacroV says:

    There’s a lot of world-class Finnish conductors these days, as everyone on SD knows. So why shouldn’t a few of them work in Finland?

  • Joukahainen says:

    Helsinki Phil did have Sergiu Comissiona in 1990-93. This was a bit sad story: the maestro didn’t receive good reviews, got angry, and didn’t spend much time in Finland.

    Helsinki Phil has generally profiled itself as a tradition-keeper (you need to know your Sibelius, Brahms and Beethoven), while the Finnish RSO has been more focused on contemporary music. Susanna Mälkki’s era with the Helsinki Phil was an exception to the rule. I would see Saraste mainly as a tradition-keeper, while Pekka Kuusisto (principal guest conductor) will bring more modern trends into the repertoire.

  • Tom says:


  • Do it says:

    Wish the US would take a page out of this book

  • IP says:

    And why doesn’t Sahara import sand? (Some people say, because they haven’t had a communist government yet)

  • seattlemusician says:

    Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Collon?

  • Cheeky Maestro says:

    If they had employed a non-Finn you would be lamenting this and giving us a list of potential Finnish conductors who’d do a better job and be more appropriate than the one they’d chosen. The wider issue here is why aren’t you on every panel when there’s a vacancy. Orchestras the world over are clearly missing a trick not asking you for help.

  • Andreas C. says:

    Anyway, with Saraste the orchestra probably knows exactly who and what they’re getting, since he’s visited them yearly for as long as anyone can remember. Programming wise the mature Saraste (unlike his pricklier younger self who preferred fast tempi at the expense of a certain rawness of sound), who has expressed interest in building his inaugural season around Bruckner and Mahler and recording a Sibelius cycle seems like a good match to the HPO.

  • Norabide Guziak says:

    Maybe they don’t need foreigners.


    They’re finnicky.

  • Joel Kemelhor says:

    If Finland did not hire well-trained Finnish conductors, there might be tens of thousands of Finns out of work.

  • V. Lind says:

    There seemed to be plenty criticism when ETO let go a lot of “regular” players and replace them with “diverse” talent. I agreed with that criticism. Is there any reason why Finland should eschew Finnish conductors, many of whom are super-talented, in favour of foreigners on some just because?

    A little inconsistency here.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    What about players in major Finnish orchestras? What percentage is from other nationalities?

    • Paavo says:

      In The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra there are about 10% non-Finnish musicians and in The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra about 25%. The working language in the FRSO was English already before the new Chief conductor Nicholas Collon. The percentage from other nationalities is about increasing slowly.

  • Unwoke says:

    I wish every country did this. And for musicians too.

  • Helmuth Gripentrog says:

    WHY DO FINNS NEVER HIRE FOREIGN CONDUCTORS asks Norman Lebrecht, stating the fact that the Helsinki Philharmonic installed Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste as its next chief conductor. While quoting the names of several recent Finnish conductors for the Helsinki Philharmonic, he completely and knowingly omits stating the fact that the other main Helsinki orchestra, the Radio Symphony Orchestra has British conductor Nicholas Collon as their main conductor. This fact, of course, would undermine Norman Lebrecht’s reasoning or does he not consider the RSO as being Finnish? Got the picture?

  • Piano Lover says:

    A-N-O-T-H-E-R conductor on the stand.
    Leif Segerstam is the best.
    Listen to his SHostakovitch symp n°7 live!!!!

    • Jan Venter says:

      I have the most boring recordings of this conductor conducting Sibelius… I ordered these at huge expense… And was hugely disappointed. The 4th symphony just doesnt make it… Passionless.

  • pjl says:

    Saraste’s recent LPO concert (headlined as Goode plays Mozart ..25…) was very memorable and compelling: not just the Silvestrov 4th but a Sibelius 1 which made me realise it as great a work (well, almost) as the 2nd.

  • Robert says:

    It’s just and fair. Because they have almost the best directors in Europe. Legal? I dont know… Se speak about culture, not about marketing.

  • Finn says:

    It basicly doensn’t matter where the chief conductor come – music first! And there’s many other things what are more important rather than nationality. E.g. do you and the orchestra (musicians + management) liking each others, musical visions and many more aspects. My country has also a long tradition to producing great conductors so we can also quite easily choose the best and most suitable person in our own. And Finland has only 4 “full size” symphony orchestars (100 members) and we have lot’s of smaller orchestras outside of capital / southern area. And these smaller orchestras have held many foreign chief conductors e.g. Jurjen Hempel, Johannes Gustavsson, James Lowe and so on. And at this moment we have Rumon Gamba in Oulu and ofc James Collon in FRSO. Some mentioned Comissiona and Opera has quite recently German Michale Güttler as it’s chief conductor. Why I’m writing these because everyone (you to Norman) can google any Finnish orchestras and check their past and present (foreign) chief conductors

  • furlong3 says:

    Why do American orchestras NEVER hire AMERICAN conductors??!!

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    There’s always so much concern about where people are from at SD. At some point, isn’t it just music (Russian/Ukraine crises excluded)?

  • Brandon says:

    Finland produces a glut of amazing conductors, there’s not need to look far if you have a certain aesthetic you want to keep home grown

  • Max Raimi says:

    I played a brilliant concert this evening with Klaus Makela and the Chicago Symphony. I don’t believe I ever saw a 26 year old with anything like his imagination and degree of mastery on the podium.
    It brings to mind the 1980s, when it seemed like half the infielders in Major League Baseball came from the same town in the Dominican Republic, San Pedro de Macoris.
    Finland has approximately the same population as Cook County, Illinois, the home county of Chicago and the CSO. It is beyond remarkable how many world class conductors and composers Finland has produced in recent times.

  • Terhi D. says:

    The other main orchestra in Helsinki is the Radio Symphony Orchestra. Its principal conductor is Nicholas Collon (who is British). There are simply so many internationally famous Finnish conductors out there, and for a Finnish orchestra, they also have one advantage: they speak Finnish.

  • Zachariah Jones says:

    Alexski Malmivaara (Artistic Director of the Helsinki Phil) was the best man at Pekka Kuusisto’s wedding. But it is a small country.

    • Nomad says:

      You just made that up, didn’t you? There’s no-one of that name in the Helsinki Phil organisation.

    • Finn says:

      Do you propably mean Aleksi Malmberg – the General Manager / Intendant of the orchestra? Btw, Malmivaara is Finnish translate version of Malmberg which originally comes from Sweden

  • Mr. FurHat says:

    I don’t know where you get the idea that Finnish orchestras don’t hire foreign MDs. That being said, I would’ve lived to see Dima Slobodienuk to take the lead in Helsinki Phil. He may not be as experienced as Saraste but far more interesting and has a great relationship with any orchestra he works with

  • M.J says:

    Well I wouldn’t call it criminal. As many has pointed out, the knowledge of the language is one important fact. But to say that Finnish conductors are overrated and merly copies of Saalonen, that’s absolute nonsens in my opinion. If anything Esa-Pekka migh be a copy of Leif Segerstam, the conductor of conductors in Finland, in that case. And let’s not forget that Sakari Oramo is considered to be the leading Sibelius expert in the world, he is a marvelous musician, by many soloists considered to be a gift of music. He has done wonders to the Royal Philharmonic of Stockholm.Klaus Mäkelä and Santtu-Matias Rouvali are among the most exciting conductors of the day, both of them doing amazing things to the Oslo Philharmonic and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. So let’s celebrate the amazing finnish school of conducting, because it’s almost always amazing!

  • James says:

    I’m fine with it . Why not ‍♂️

  • Musician says:

    It is very very wise. And actually Russians have been doing the same with their leading musical institutions. When you lead an institution like this you are also taking care of the musical heritage of the country, local composers, soloists, conductors. It is so annoying when as an artist or composer you have an established relationship with an institution and suddenly you have to speak to a musical director sent by an international agency who has no clue about local musical traditions.

  • Finn But Not Finn says:

    I live in Finland and work in the classical music world. As the say goes, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. If you’re gonna claim that they are open to foreigners because The Finnish Radio Orchestra hired one Brit (I repeat: *one*), or Helsinki Phil hired Sergiu Comissiona in the 90’s (again, *one*), then you have chosen to be blind in front of reality. Foreign guest conductors, plenty. But they must come from the big agencies, which have taken Finland by assault and treat it like their property, to the point that if you’re not with them, then you have absolutely no chance. And even if you go and try to present yourself as a proficient conductor, educated in Finland nonetheless, fluent in Finnish, willing to cooperate and contribute to their classical music life, they will still ignore you. I wasn’t told this: this is my own experience living here. I can name many foreigners who came here to study conducting and found a career somewhere else, but if you want to find foreigners who have studied here, decided to stay, and live out of conducting… you can name one or two, but then again: one swallow doesn’t make a summer.
    Call it what you want: take pride on your own people, supporting your own, preferring your own, nationalism, chauvinism, discrimination, nepotism… all of that is open to discussion or debate (because I have to say I admire when a country takes good care of its own people), but one thing is for sure: there is no equal treatment for foreigners here. And that’s axiomatic.