Saturday 24 October 2015

An encounter with Stefan Forsberg, from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and Sakari Oramo - photo credit Dan Hansson
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and Sakari Oramo - photo credit Dan Hansson
Stockholm's Konserthuset, the main concert hall in the centre of Stockholm, is a large blue classical revival building in the centre of Norrmalm, the area of the city redeveloped in the 20th century and now a buzzing heart of shops and commerce. The concert hall, purpose built in the 1920's is the home of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (their name in Swedish, Kungliga Filharmonikerna, simply means Royal Philharmonic Orchestra). In fact, the building is owned by the orchestra and fulfils two important functions, a home for the orchestra for concerts, rehearsals and recording, and a venue for the annual Nobel Prize ceremony.

Stefan Forsberg
Stefan Forsberg
So Stefan Forsberg, the CEO, manages the orchestra and the hall, with responsibility for the artistic direction of both. He has been in post since 2003, and before his move into management was a trumpeter. I was lucky enough to interview Stefan the morning after my first visit to the hall, for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra's concert of music by Lili and Nadia Boulanger conducted by Marc Soustrot.

'We love festivals, for a reason and for no reason'

The concert was part of the orchestra's 2015 Composers Festival, an annual event devoted to a living composer but this year given to the music of the Boulanger sisters. Stefan explained that they like festivals (the Composers Festival is in its 30th year), both for a reason and for no reason. The 2015 anniversary for Sibelius and Nielsen generated their Sibelius Nielsen Festival earlier this year, when they were joined by a number of guest orchestras.

Stefan and his team feel that concentrating music in festivals improves the attention it gets and after 30 years of contemporary music in the Composers Festivals, their audience trusts them. At the Lili and Nadia Boulanger concert there was an audience of around 1100 for music which most had never heard of, and the same would be true of contemporary music.

Systrarna Boulanger

Stefan Lindgren and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra performing Nadia Boulanger's Fantaisie Variee
Stefan Lindgren & Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
performing Nadia Boulanger's Fantaisie Varieephoto Jan-Olav Wedin
The music of the Boulanger sisters was included in what is essentially a contemporary composers festival because of the impact the two sisters had on the music of subsequent generations including such composers as Ades, Pärt, Norgard, who all featured in previous Composer Festivals. Having had the initial idea the programming the programming team read around the subject.. Stefan feels that the sisters lives could be a film, and Debussy wrote articles describing Lili as a genius at the age of 19, and the two women stood out despite the strong talent around them in France at the time. But another point is that their lives raised issues which are still important today, the fascinating matter of female composers and conductors, and the reactions of those around them. The whole made a rich story for the festival, which raised the curious point about why the music is not played today..

Conductor Marc Soustrot, who trained at the Lyon and Paris Conservatoires, had never conducted any of the music, and the French Embassy in Stockholm conveyed their thanks for making the performances happen. Stefan hopes that by bringing the music together into a festival, things may start to happen. The soprano Nina Stemme attended the Liederabend on 15 October and in fact she will be programming songs by Lili Boulanger later this year. Much of the performance material has been acquired for the orchestra's library so further performances are possible. And it helps that both the audience and the artists loved the music!

This revealing of a neglected talent is something which the festival has done before. The 2003 festival brought the music of Henri Dutilleux to the fore, all the more special because Dutilleux (who was in his late 80's at the time) was able to attend. And that is why the orchestra does such festivals, to bring music of such composers to attention.

They do one composers festival per year, and work four years ahead so next years is well into the planning stage and will be announced in due course.

'You always surprise us, we came for the Beethoven and left with the Albert Schnelzer'.

Then in the Spring they do a contemporary festival devoted to living Swedish composers with new specially written works. Spring 2016 sees one devoted to Mats Larsson Gothe who has had success in opera and with symphonies. He is writing his third symphony for the festival. Cape Town Opera is coming from South Africa to perform part of Larsson Gothe's opera Africa Prophetess.

The orchestra gets good audiences for the contemporary music festivals and they also include contemporary music in their regular programmes. Stefan regards including such works as an important responsibility. But performing such repertoire regularly and consistently, the audience has come to trust them as well as being loyal, also doing their homework by background reading. Stefan often gets comments such as 'You always surprise us, we came for the Beethoven and left with the Albert Schnelzer'.

Beloved subscribers

Regularity in the audiences is encouraged because of the orchestra's use of subscription series. In fact Stefan believes strongly in subscriptions and the orchestra's subscribers are referred to as Beloved Subscribers. It is clear that Stefan and his team treasure their subscribers and there has been an enormous development in subscriber numbers. This is encouraged by making occasional gifts to the subscription audience so that, for instance, Renee Fleming's concert was included in the subscription packages rather then being a stand alone event at higher prices. And such schemes clearly pay off.

Stefan's programme involves a mix, not just established starts but up and coming performers too, and Stefan sees it as his responsibility to ensure that the audiences in Stockholm love them all. Performers also include guest orchestras, and there is a chamber music series too. The management team takes the long view, and when they start something they stick with it. The lunchtime organ recital series, started to showcase the hall's fine organ, began with just 50 audience but this has now built up to 600.

'Letting the beast out'

Marc Soustrot conducting the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Marc Soustrot conducting
the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
photo Jan-Olav Wedin

I was curious as to how Stefan saw the orchestra's sound. He commented that every CEO thinks their orchestra has a sound of its own. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra's background comes from the German tradition but they also play Sibelius, Nielsen and the Nordic composers regularly. Stefan thinks it makes a full bodied sound with an airy atmosphere, describing it as a huge sound machine but without the hardness of attack. It is a warm dark sound, not light and thin. They appreciate conductors who allow the orchestra to create the sound and really go for it. 'Letting the beast out' is how Stefan describes it.

The hall itself (with the acoustic improvements of the 1980's) brings clarity of sound to the orchestra, and a conductor needs to be able to bring the sound of the orchestra together. Stefan also sees the orchestra's sound quality as being influenced by the country''s open landscape with people used to being out in forests and lakes. Such ideas are prevalent in Nordic symphonic music and Stefan thinks they really come into the orchestra's sound.

Striving to make the next performance even better

Other Swedish orchestras visit the hall, whilst the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra visits other places in Sweden two or three times per year, and international touring is very important. But though they accept as many foreign tours as they can, visiting premiere venues like the Proms or Carnegie Hall, the orchestra is funded by public money and Stefan sees that they need to be at home in Stockholm.

For Stefan (a former orchestral musician himself) a good orchestra musician is one who is always striving to make the next performance better than the previous one. If you can stimulate this then the orchestra will be good. The Stockholm orchestra is lucky and have had a great relationship with their chief conductor Sakari Oramo. Oramo bring the best out in the orchestra and Stefan describes the orchestra's performances with him as 'another dimension'.

They have a relatively flat organisation and so Stefan sees his role as including being on stage talking music to the orchestra with Sakari Oramo. He is always on stage, talking to the orchestra on Monday mornings reminding them what has been achieved and why things have been planned. As CEO he tries to be very present.

The hall is the orchestra's home

Stockholm's Concert Hall, interior - photo Jan-Olav Wedin
Stockholm's Concert Hall, interior - photo Jan-Olav Wedin
The hall is the orchestra's home, they perform, rehearse and record there (there is no separate rehearsal hall). Stefan regards them as being blessed to have it, though of course owning an historic building is somewhat of a responsibility too! In addition to the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra the hall presents a variety of other music, educational activities, jazz, world music and chamber music. In fact, any genre where a good acoustic is needed and the programme as broad a repertoire as possible with a number of collaborations. It is important that people feel they are willing to pay for the hall (via their taxes) even if the do not visit it and they have fabulous support.

Currently Stefan gets a guaranteed budget four years ahead, so that he can plan up to 2018 at the moment. This enables him to programme such thing as Riccardo Muti conducting opera in 2016. But it does mean that they have to show they can deliver on whatever was planned and promised.

Such initiatives include  the concerts of gaming music which needed the players to be convinced but which attracted large audiences of young people. A completely new audience so they can say to politician and people that young people will come to hear purely acoustic concerts. Stefan sees it as important to give politicians arguments; they can't make speeches about Beethoven, but such approachability, being open to all, is something that can be useful.

Education: from Young Artists to El Sistema

Young participant in El Sistema Söderteälje with musicians from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic
Young participants in El Sistema Söderteälje
with musicians from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic
Education is an important strand to activities. They do 35 concerts per season for children, so that all children in the county aged 5 to 15 get invited, around 35,000 in all. There are school based activities, and the children came to the concert hall during holidays to do activities, explore and interact with musicians.

Then the orchestra auditions young talented classical and jazz musicians aged 16 to 19, the ones selected are coached on how to perform, present themselves and create repertoire. They participate in a total of 250 free concerts over the summer, so each group will have done around 50 concerts. Once past this, the young performers can be moved to the Young Artists Programme where they young players perform for events organised by the orchestra's sponsors. This is an entirely different strand of training including entrepreneurship, commercial events, all the elements which go up to make a real musician's life.

Perhaps the most challenging, for the orchestral members, are the El Sistema inspired activities in the Söderteälje camp which takes a high number of refugees. El Sistema-style orchestras, with their own teacher, have been created there and the orchestral musician's role is to participate and to inspire. they go along to sectional rehearsals, and talk to the children.

Stefan sees it as important for the children to have examples. Classical training takes such a long time, it is important that children have inspiration and see what is possible. The orchestra's presence in the scheme helps generate the spark which might inspire this.

Initially the musicians were apprehensive, not about the music, but about meeting small children from Iran, Iraq, Albania, children of different cultures and religions. Ultimately they are finding it fund and fulfilling.

Stefan wants the hall to be Stockholm's living room, a place which is never closed and where you always come when looking for entertainment if music interests you. The ground floor of the hall includes a number of shops and coffee shops, and the hall itself hosts exhibitions so that Stefan feels they integrate it into Stockholm's social life.

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