BY Hanna Isolammi
Ville Matvejeff is one of the most successful classical musicians in Finland today. He performs as a conductor and pianist around the world, he is artistic director or musical advisor at festivals, and he has composition commissions lined up for several years to come. His career is exceptionally diverse and wide-ranging.
Being hailed as a polymath is getting old for Ville Matvejeff. “I think that in order to work with music you need many kinds of tools, but the foundation for it all – the fundamental inspiration – is the music itself. Any given channel can open up new opportunities that are interesting to explore. I developed my broad job profile in quite an organic way.”
Matvejeff’s first instrument was the piano. He made his debut as soloist with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Susanna Mälkki at the age of 18, and his ambition was to become a concert pianist. He also wrote music and was engaged in choral singing. It was through choral music that he found his way into opera and into conducting. The latter activities now take up the majority of his time.
Swept away by opera
Opera has been Ville Matvejeff’s favourite kind of music for a decade, which is intriguing given that he sort of wandered into the genre by accident. “Some ten years ago I was aiming for a concert pianist’s career, and to finance my studies I needed to have a part-time job. I found myself in various opera gigs as a rehearsal pianist, a conductor’s assistant and a chorusmaster’s assistant.”
Matvejeff continued to accumulate experience in opera, and his first proper job in this field was as a rehearsal pianist at the Finnish National Opera, which led to similar appointments at the opera houses of Stockholm and Malmö in Sweden. “I never imagined that opera would turn out to be my favourite job, but once I had entered that world, it swept me off my feet,” he says.
Matvejeff’s choral background gave him an intimate relationship with the human voice, which is one of the reasons why opera was such a good fit for him. But there are other enchantments too: “I have always been deeply inspired by how an opera is more than the sum of its parts and by what a huge amount of stuff goes into a performance. The additional dimension lent to the music by the text is extremely fascinating for me.”
Asked to name his favourite opera, Matvejeff mentions Król Roger (King Roger) by Karol Szymanowski. “I am very fond of it and consider it one of the best operas of the 20th century. Vocally and in sonority it is an incredibly wonderful thing, and it is a shame that it is performed so rarely,” he says.
Since 2014, Matvejeff has been the principal guest conductor and artistic advisor of the Croatian National Theatre HNK Zajc. He made the unlikely leap to the opera house in Rijeka after a tip given to Croatian headhunters by someone in Sweden. The Croatian National Theatre does not have a chief conductor or music director, but Matvejeff advises its management in artistic matters. He also conducts a considerable number of opera performances and concerts in Rijeka each year.
Matvejeff is pleased with the ensemble at the Croatian National Theatre. He describes its vocal range as so broad that almost any opera can be east using only in house soloists. “Croatia is a great place to work in general. It is a dynamic opera community that is evolving rapidly and enjoys a central location in Europe. Vienna, Milan and Munich are within easy reach, and performers are easier to move around than, say, in Finland.”
The adventurous Jyväskylä Sinfonia
Apart from his job in Croatia, Matvejeff is regularly employed in Finland. He has been chief conductor of the Jyväskylä Sinfonia since 2014, and he has a couple of years left in that post. “The Jyväskylä orchestra is a wonderful place to work,” Matvejeff says excitedly. “lts sound and technical skills have improved hugely over the past two years, and the musicians have an incredible energy.” He also praises Jyväskylä audiences, and with good reason: last autumn, orchestra concerts scored an astounding 100% capacity rate, and even the season as a whole set a new national record at 98%.
For audiences to be eager to hear and support the orchestra of their home town is a huge motivational boost for the orchestra, compensating for the fact that Jyväskylä still does not have a hall suitable for orchestral rehearsals or performances. Matvejeff describes how a visit to the excellent acoustics of Sibelius Hall in Lahti had the musicians of the Jyväskylä Sinfonia marvelling at just how good their orchestra sounded – back home they could not really tell. “Perhaps the improvement in the orchestra’s sound is partly rooted in the fact that we need to work really hard to make a good sound and play a good performance,” Matvejeff theorises. That Jyväskylä does not have a proper concert hall is one of the most notorious disgraces in the domain of Finnish classical music, but in January the project took a tiny step forwards as a project plan for building a hall was presented. The greatest challenge of all – finding the money – lies ahead, but at the moment it looks as if there may be a concert hall in Iyväskylä’s future after all.
In recent years, the Jyväskylä Sinfonia has performed a lot of 20th-century music and Romantic rarities for small orchestra. Next, Matvejeff plans to dive deep into the music of Mozart. “Focusing on the Classical era seems like a refreshing change just now,” says Matvejeff. There are also recording projects in the pipeline. Last year, the orchestra released two very different albums: Aulis Sallinen’s Chamber Music I-VIII on the Ondine label and a selection of classical and popular music with baritone Waltteri Torikka, who has become popular as a crossover performer. Matvejeff notes that these two approaches will continue to govern the discography of the Jyväskylä Sinfonia.
Composing in the summer
Ville Matvejeffis also a talented and successful composer. He began to attract attention in Finnish musical circles in the 2009-10 concert season with the premieres of a number of major works: Il principe dei dolori for two vocal quintets (SSATB), violin, clarinet and lute at the Helsinki Festival, the cello concerto Crossroads in Lappeenranta, and the orchestral work Ad Astra commissioned by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle) and premiered by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Helsinki. The Violin Concerto that Yle likewise commissioned from Matvejeff became the first orchestral work to be given its premiere at the new Musiikkitalo in Helsinki. A disc containing Crossroads and Ad Astra (Alba ABCD364) was released in 2013; its merits include being named “Q2 Album of the Week” by radio station WQXR in New York City. Matvejeffs background in choral singing can be seen in his catalogue, as a considerable percentage of his output is vocal music, particularly choral music.
Matvejeff the composer is in the fortunate position of being offered more commissions than he can accept. Conducting currently takes up about 80% of his time, which means cutting down on composing and other work. A schedule that is too tight allows no leeway for the unexpected, and Matvejeff does not like to miss deadlines. “I prefer to keep my schedule comfortable, but I have learnt to be strict with my deadlines. My goal is to complete one extensive work each year,” he says.
In Mahlerian fashion, Matvejeff tends to write music in the summer, when there are fewer concerts and opera performances. “I need to have an uninterrupted length of time to write music so that I can get the process under way properly and do not immediately have to leave the world and mood of the piece at hand to do something else,” he says. During the concert season, he plans out his compositions while travelling: “Thinking things out is the longest and most arduous part of the process; it requires time and space and contrasting impulses. Through this rumination I discover the architectural blocking of the music.” Having worked out the music in his head, Matvejeff actually writes rather quickly, since through his conducting work he is thoroughly familiar with scoring, playing techniques and notation.
Matvejeff feels that the working environment and performance opportunities of a Finnish composer are quite good by international standards. “Contemporary music is well received in Finland, and there is a gratifying number of premieres every year. Also, composers are appreciated in Finland, because we have a lot of intelligent people who not only write good music but are good at writing about their thoughts,” he says. On the other hand, he regrets that earning a living by writing classical music in Finland is precarious: few works get a second performance after the premiere. He is trying to do his part to change this in his own programming as a conductor. “I try as much as I can to provide opportunities for young composers to have their works performed, and more than once at that. This represents a challenge in programming, but I feel that it is really valuable.”
New Generation Opera
“Finnish composers seem to be enormously interested in writing operas, even though the potential for getting new operas performed is infinitesimal,” says Matvejeff. There are only a couple of large opera companies in Finland, and, with economic hardships mounting, they are obliged to take financial considerations into account in their programming. A new production of a new work is always a gigantic financial risk. “For a contemporary work, it is essential to have an extramusical hook of some kind to get audiences to come,” says Matvejeff. He has himself been involved in revitalising opera performance practices.
In 2013, Matvejeff conceived and established New Generation Opera (see also FMQ 3/2013), intended as a forum for new works and emerging vocal talent. “It was my ‘vision project’. I wanted to see whether it would be feasible to produce opera in an unconventional way,” he explains.
New Generation Opera’s first production was Mozart’s Don Giovanni, performed at the Helsinki Festival in 2013. This production propelled the classic opera into the modern age, incorporating real-time video and jump cuts. The performances excited audiences and critics alike, and among further plans was the staging of Juhani Nuorvala’s opera Flash Flash. “The follow-up for New Generation Opera was supposed to be showcasing new operas and above all young singers. Unfortunately, the funding was pulled, and NGO had to be shelved,” says Matvejeff.
While the pioneering work of New Generation Opera in Finland ended before it had barely begun, the idea lives on. The Don Giovanni production is still touring Europe a couple of years after its premiere. It was recently voted the best opera production in Croatia, and it was nominated for the Classical:NEXT innovation prize. “I am happy that people are still very interested in it. Even though NGO crashed and burned, new ideas never go away; they get implemented in some other way by some other people,” says Matvejeff.
lnfluences and inroads
Matvejeff is in a position to showcase new performers and composers both through the Jyväskylä Sinfonia and at the Turku Music Festival, of which he has been artistic director since the beginning of this year. Having previously been involved in various ways with the Turku festival for six years, he was already familiar with the lie of the land and the working practices of the festival.
“lt is a great opportunity and a great responsibility to continue the tradition of the Turku Music Festival in bringing classical music trends and star performers to Finland. I also want to give young, talented performers major performing opportunities as early in their careers as possible, to introduce them to the public at large and to allow them to grow artistically. Performers usually improve at a rapid pace if given the opportunity to do so. Giving major performance opportunities to emerging performers is a way to boost this development,” he says, describing his plans for the festival.
Matvejeff notes that he himself had inspiring early experiences of working with major artists, and this fostered his own artistic development. He mentions his Lieder recital tours as pianist with Karita Mattila among his most memorable experiences. “Five years earlier, I could not have even dreamt of one day playing at Wigmore Hall in London – something that every pianist and chamber musician aspires to. The recital I played there with Karita was an evening I will never forget.”
Matvejeff also names Leif Segerstam and Esa-Pekka Salonen as major influences; working as their assistant gave him access to challenging major productions. “One of my long-standing dreams came true last November when I had the opportunity to do Sibelius’s Kullervo with Jorma Hynninen. Jorma is the iconic singer for Kullervo. No one is better.”
The future and its challenges are something to be met with patience and humility. “The main thing is to do the work at hand as well as possible. If you do things well, something good usually comes out of it,” he says.
Home is an abstract concept
A conductor’s job is physically demanding, and a healthy lifestyle is essential for Matvejeff: “You have to ensure that you get enough sleep and have a healthy diet.” While the work itself serves as a workout, he also exercises when possible. He particularly enjoys skiing. Apart from physical fitness, a conductor must have considerable social skills, as in any given day he may have to communicate with hundreds of people.
Although Matvejeffis a social person, he has found it increasingly important to have quiet time to balance the communicative requirements of his work. In his spare time, he prefers to retreat to the peace and quiet of his cottage in North Karelia. “lt’s a great contrast to be able to be come from a busy metropolis to complete silence. But there is an intriguing similarity too, since it’s possible to be anonymous and alone both in a big city and in the middle of nowhere.”
Not that Matvejeff has all that much spare time, as he is on the road around Europe for nearly 300 days in a year. His parents are in the tourism industry, and he thus became accustomed to living out of a suitcase at an early age. Unlike many other musicians who are constantly on the road, he does not get homesick.
“It has been exciting to discover that constant travelling has made ‘home’ an abstract concept that has somehow lost part of its meaning. In this job, it helps if you are a wanderer at heart.”
Hanna lsolammi is the editor of FMQ and a freelance writer who is working on a doctoral dissertation in musicology.
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
:: Born in 1986
:: Studied at the Sibelius Academy and the Espoo Music Institute
:: Solo pianist debut with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Susanna Mälkki at the age of 18; toured worldwide as Karita Mattila’s Lieder pianist
:: Artistic director of the Turku Music Festival since 2016
:: Several composition commissions e.g. from the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle)
:: Compositions recorded on the Alba label, including orchestral works (ABCD364, 2013) and choral works
:: Founder of the New Generation Opera