Magnificent Maestros: Leif Segerstam

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The term maestro has two meanings. It is a conductor, of course, but it also means teacher. To some degree, every conductor is also a teacher, but some few of them so fully embrace pedagogy that it seems to dwarf their other achievements. A few maestros are also composers. Mahler and Leonard Bernstein both belong in this category, as did Mendelssohn in his short life.

Maestro seems insufficient when the subject is Leif Segerstam, a Finn who is in every way larger than life and defies easy description: Conductor, master teacher, prodigious composer and a lot more. For a long time he has headed the conducting program at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, one of the world’s top conservatories, while holding important conducting posts in Scandinavia, Germany and Austria.

Finland turns out many of the most important conductors, composers and instrumentalists of our day, and Segerstam has either taught or advocated for many of them. He also has composed more symphonies than just about anyone in history. At last count, he passed 240 and I am sure he will have completed another by the time I finish writing this article. He has also written at least 30 string quartets, 13 violin concertos, four for viola, eight for cello and four for piano.

I interviewed him at his apartment in Helsinki in 2003 and was both dazzled and exhausted by his brilliant, original way of discussing music. He was a very large man with long salt and pepper hair and a long beard who traipsed back and forth from his kitchen to his composer’s study, sidestepping his toddlers and their toys. In one hand he had a thick sandwich of cheese, ham, sausage and butter that he would chomp on as he carried in the other a long sheet of paper with ink still wet that bore his latest symphony. Every so often during my visit he would turn his back to me and write out some new music on whatever paper was in front of him.

I noted in my pad that Brahms must have looked something like this man, though he would have been more reserved and courtly. Segerstam was cordial enough but his mind was working so fast that having to stop and speak with anyone had the effect for him of slowing down from thinking at warp speed to trying to match his words with his thoughts for a listener. I had been warned that he speaks in brilliant if somewhat confounding bursts and later found that a musician in an orchestra in New Zealand had compiled a list of Segerstam’s enigmatic pronouncements.

With food in his mouth he kept repeating the words pulsative and pulsation, but I could never quite understand what he meant. From what I gathered, it means that different instruments or sections of an orchestra (strings, winds, brass, percussion) play their music at the speeds they favor and gradually they all catch up with one another. The concertmaster or conductor would indicate when all were supposed to start playing and to recommence at certain points in the score. This article from Wikipedia (not necessarily a reliable source) might give you some sense of his composing style.

Here is Segerstam’s Symphony #212, dedicated to Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Look for the maestro at the piano and the orchestra being led, to some degree, by the concertmaster but more by the score itself. You can watch it on two videos: part one:

And part two:

Finns are in awe, and quietly proud, of this tireless iconoclast. His performances of the works of mainstream composers and unknowns are often electric and he seems to relish huge challenges. A few summers ago I heard him conduct a kinetic Tristan und Isolde at the Savonlinna festival. He once conducted all nine Beethoven symphonies in one day, willing his orchestra to rise to the occasion. I gather that he changed shirts often and had a copious supply of food just offstage.

Missing from the Met

As a teenager, Segerstam studied conducting, violin, piano and composition at the Sibelius Academy and continued his studies at the Juilliard School in New York. Soon after, he received important conducting assignments for the opera companies of Helsinki, Stockholm and Berlin. Out of curiosity I looked up whether he had ever conducted at the Met, assuming he had not. In fact, he made his Met debut on December 10, 1973, 18 months after the debut of his contemporary, James Levine. He gave his last performance on June 28, 1975, which was also Franco Corelli’s last Met appearance.

Segerstam led 35 performances for the Met: eight Manon Lescauts and 27 of La Bohéme, in New York, on a national tour and in Japan. The artists he worked with make an astonishing list that reminds us that a golden age of singing was not too long ago. Just to name two roles, Segerstam’s Met Mimis included Lucine Amara, Montserrat Caballé, Dorothy Kirsten, Adriana Maliponte, Katia Ricciarelli (debut), Renata Scotto and Teresa Zylis-Gara. Among the Rodolfos were José Carreras, Corelli, and Luciano Pavarotti. In 1975, Segerstam led the final Met performance of Giorgio Tozzi, who sang Colline.

The inevitable question is why did Segerstam have no further assignments at the Met since then? Perhaps he had offers and turned them down or perhaps the company did not want him back. It is hard to know. It could be that his style, though it gets palpable results, was not a good fit for the Met musicians. Maybe they just didn’t know what he was saying! And yet, for all of his distinctive traits, he does seem to elicit marvelous music-making from his collaborators.

On June 12, I went to a Sunday afternoon performance of Der Rosenkavalier at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. This is akin to watching tennis at Wimbledon or baseball at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park. Although this opera is emphatically Viennese, Richard Strauss was a hometown boy and local audiences revel in his lush melodies and orchestrations. When the maestro entered the pit to play the sensual and rollicking prelude, it was a large man with long, snow-white hair and beard. It was Segerstam, looking like Santa Claus dressed in black rather than red and still ruddy-cheeked after arriving from the North Pole.

For more than four hours, Segerstam, 67, conducted a vibrant, lively, elegant and humorous performance of this beloved work. The old-fashioned production was by Otto Schenk and was served mit schlag, a Viennese way of adding a dollop of whipped cream to make everything sweet and frothy. The audience cheered his every move, doddering though they sometimes were.

Segerstam beautifully shaped phrases for his talented singers. Anja Harteros did not put a foot wrong as the Marschallin. She is an artist who exceeds my high expectations of her every time I see her. At the Met in 2008 she did the best Violetta in La Traviata I have seen in a very long time, but we have not heard her in New York since then. In Munich, I noted that Harteros got the last bow of the night. At the Met it always goes to the mezzo-soprano who sings Octavian, as that is the title character. Ruxandra Donose gave a charming performance of that role. Peter Rose was a wonderful Baron Ochs and Lucy Crowe was the best Sophie I have ever seen--more about her in a future post.

Nowadays, when all but the greatest conductors seem ever-so-slightly interchangeable, I like to listen to those who stand apart. I may not always know what they are saying in words, but their musical communication is vivid and unlike anyone else’s. That is part of what makes a maestro magnificent.

Have you heard Leif Segerstam conduct? If so, please share your thoughts below: