Fortune Favours the Finn

Finnish conductor Eva Ollikainen’s recent RSNO debut nearly didn’t happen, but she’s anticipating a smoother return to Scotland this week with her Iceland orchestra. KEN WALTON reports

These days, fortunes can turn on a sixpence. Last November, Finnish conductor Eva Ollikainen suddenly had to cancel her planned debut with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra when her son developed symptoms of Covid. “I was on the train to the airport when I checked the test results. They were positive. I had no option but to turn round and go home,” she recalls. 

As luck would have it, the following week found the RSNO facing yet another last-minute cancellation, this time by its principal guest conductor Elim Chan. Ollikainen was now free and able to travel. “You’d never have known it was anything but planned,” wrote VoxCarnyx’s Keith Bruce in his enthusiastic appraisal of the hastily rescheduled debut. “It was great fun. I was so glad they asked me,” was the 41-year-old conductor’s own cheery verdict.

This weekend, she makes a welcome return to Scotland with her own orchestra, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, as part of its current UK tour. They’ll perform music by Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Anna Thorvaldsdottir on Sunday at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, with guest soloist Sir Stephen Hough in a repeat of the work he played only two months ago with the BBC SSO, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2.

Ollikainen succeeded Yan Pascal Tortelier to become the ISO’s first female chief conductor in 2020, only months after her predecessor had presided over the orchestra’s last Edinburgh visit. With Covid raging it wasn’t the best time to cement a new creative relationship, but Ollikainen reckons it had its positive spin-offs. “It made us a very tight team instantly. Circumstances were what they were, and we had to be super-flexible and super-fast in response.” 

“One of the pros in being such a small country, and with us being Iceland’s only full-time professional orchestra, is that we negotiated directly with the government on what we were allowed to do at any given time, and with great success,” she says. “While the rest of society was only allowed to meet 20 people at a time, we could divide the stage in such a manner that brought 60 musicians together at a time. These groups of 20, three different sections, didn’t actually meet each other backstage. It was the same for the audience. We managed to have more audience than was actually allowed and we did everything very quickly.”

Other than that, she insists, getting to know the players and their ways has just been “really quite ordinary work”. “All orchestras undergo different moments of their development, but basically concentrate on the same things. We’re talking about sound quality, ensemble playing, about how much we dare, in the heat of a concert, leave space for certain emotion or how low we dare go with a dynamic. Some things are carefully rehearsed, but live performance still needs to have a fresh feeling to it.”

These are, of course, the issues that exemplify the chemistry of an orchestra and its conductor, and it’s a balance that will surely play a part in defining the success of Sunday’s Edinburgh programme, which pits the familiar sounds of two Russian warhorses (the Tchaikovsky is his well-worn Fifth Symphony) against the fresh Icelandic modernism of Thorvaldsdottir, the orchestra’s composer-in-residence, whose music RSNO regulars may just recognise. 

Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos – a work written for the New York Philharmonic in 2018, which the composer herself likens to “a speculative metaphor of falling into a black hole” – was programmed as part of Ollikainen’s cancelled November RSNO debut. Rather than ditch it, her last-minute replacement, the versatile American conductor Jonathan Stockhammer, chose to go ahead, revealing a restless soundscape characterised by mystical turbulence. 

“Anna has written a lot, not just for us alone, but as co-commissions which we are a fundamental part of – keen to be among the first to perform her music,” Ollikainen explains. “She has also started a composition academy for young composers, like a workshop where young Icelandic composers can show her their scores, get advice, and eventually have them played and recorded for archive by the orchestra. Next season, we’re having a big ‘Anna’ festival.”

Ollikainen is not the first Finn to exert her influence on the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Back in the 1990s, prior to his triumphant reign at the BBC SSO, Osmo Vänskä made his indelible mark as chief conductor. I asked her why Finland seems to breed so many top-ranking conductors. “There’s essentially one answer to that, Jorma Panula,” she responds, referring to her own teacher, the legend synonymous with single-handedly creating a world-leading conducting course at the Sibelius Academy that also spawned the likes of Esa-Pekka Salonen, Sakari Oramo, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Susanna Mälkki. 

“Central to his method is an an understanding that what really matters in conducting is the personality,” Ollikainen believes. “He doesn’t try to castrate people’s personalities, but encourages them to be themselves, to believe in their own musical ideas. He’s very successful in helping you find you own path.”

With her contract now extended to 2026, does Ollikainen ever envisage the kind of legacy she’d eventually like to leave behind? “I can’t change, and don’t want to change, the personality of the orchestra. Every conductor has to realise, even if staying over a long period of say 17 years, that that is still going to be a drop in the ocean as far as history goes. You can leave something, a little bit, and the tree will have grown a little bit in one direction. Someone else will come along and make their own small changes. It’s an organic process.”

One area that does exercise Ollikainen’s thoughts, especially as a woman operating at the top of a once entirely male-dominated profession, is the need to focus on diversity, particularly in the repertoire she hopes to explore. “When I studied music history at the Sibelius Academy, if you even just spoke about female composers, Hildegard von Bingen was mentioned, then the next stop was Kaija Saariaho. That’s a gap of 800 years. There’s a great chunk of knowledge we need to fill.” 

She adds a word of caution, however. “That has to be done sensibly, not as a panic reaction. The most important thing is that we have equal opportunities for composers today.”

Eva Ollikainen conducts the Iceland Symphony Orchestra at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on Sunday 23 April, 3pm. Full details at

(Pictures: Nikolaj Lund)