Kari Turunen: I needed to give myself to conducting

Kari Turunen is known for many things – he is Finnish artistic director, choral conductor, ensemble tenor, music scholar and lecturer. His multifaceted career has taken a new turn in last year when he joined Vancouver Chamber Choir as its artistic director. During his time he was conducting for five ensembles: the male chorus Akademiska Sångföreningen; Kampin Laulu chamber choir; Spira Ensemble; the all-male Ensemble Petraloysio; the choir of the cantors of the Finnish Lutheran Church, Chorus Cantorum Finlandiae. With them he had earned numerous prizes at national and international festivals with his groups. In this interview self-proclaimed “Lazy Workaholic” K. Turunen talks about his daily practice, music pedagogy, and the fine line between hope and despair.

You are an artistic director, choral conductor, ensemble tenor, music scholar and lecturer. How do you balance all the different occupations in your everyday life?

It has been complex at times. Much of it is intertwined, but some of the roles require distance from other roles. This is one of the reasons I chose to move to Vancouver – to concentrate on one major role (conductor).

Although born in Finnland, you grew up in Australia. Would you say that influenced you as a musician?

My experiences of musical life in Australia are limited. I did play the cello there, but it never played a major role in my life. I was much more into sports at that time. Music and me is pretty much a Finnish affair.

In youth you played double bass. How did you decided to make changes in your occupation and pursue a role of a conductor – artistic director?

I was never all that great as a double bass player and actually decided that I did not want to become a professional musician. What drew me into that life was singing in choirs and gradually getting a bigger role in the choirs (assistant conductor). I came into choral conducting from the inside, as so many of us have.

I‘ve read that in the free time you enjoy playing cricket and reading English literature. What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve tried to read Canadian literature after coming here. The last book I finished was by the magnificent Alice Munro. I think everything is connected, so I find things for my work everywhere. And I am pretty good at seeing these connections, but I would not be without literature. I am not sure which I love more, words or music.

A year ago you became an artistic director of Vancouver Chamber Choir. What was the first year like? How this experience differs from others?

It is a new context, a new environment, a new culture and I stepped into a long history. But, on the other hand, working with a choir is amazingly similar everywhere. Of course, this first year is a learning curve for me, but I think I am starting to see the way forward for the Chamber Choir and more broadly, for choral music here on the Canadian West Coast. I think things have gone surprisingly well and I have found my feet quicker than I feared.

Your conducting professor in Finland was Matti Hyökki, you also took master classes with Stefan Sköld, Anders EbyEric EricsonOren Brown. What did you learned from your teachers?

They all shared a great deal of wisdom that I have carried with me and much of it has become who I am as a choral conductor. Skills, not just knowledge. Because it has become part of what and who I am, it is impossible to see what is from where and whom.

How could you describe your lifestyle as a musician? What elements of it challenge you the most?

At the moment, being removed from both my immediate and extended family and friends is most taxing. Otherwise, the present job gives me something I have long yearned for: time off. I now have free time on my hands at the same time as most people, i.e. the evenings and weekends. This I definitely enjoy. The stress of leading a professional choir is quite a test of character – and it goes not only for the musical side, but also things like ticket sales.

You were one of the founding members of Lumen Valo also you formed an ensemble Ensemble Petraloysio. What is usually the thought process behind the foundation of the ensemble? What would you say that this experience told you or taught you the most?

Lumen Valo was a youthful experiment. Some friends just wanted to sing Renaissance music together. It all grew very naturally and organically from there. Ensemble Petraloysio and I Dodici (founded 2019) were groups of specialists I felt I needed for exploring new winds in performing Renaissance music. Petraloysio was a part of my doctoral studies and I Dodici in many ways a step forward from those thoughts. One thing I have learned is that it is best to choose the singers meticulously; to find voices that in accordance with your needs and taste. It is worthwhile spending a lot of time on choosing the right singers.

How does inspiration manifest in your creative life?

Inspiration for me comes after preparing. Give the brain a task, food for thought and time, and inspiration comes. In everyday life it is creativity, looking at the world with fresh eyes.

As one of your passions you mentioned „creative procrastination“. What procrastination means to you and how do you turn it into a strength in your creative life?

Being lazy. Which I am by nature – at the same time as I am something of a workaholic. Creativity requires letting the brain process things, giving oneself time. Sports, being outdoors, watching movies and series, reading. They would be my mode of procrastinating. I have also tended to put off unpleasant things too long, but I am learning to get better at doing those things earlier.

After concerts you write a blog, reflecting on your work and the experience of the performance. What is the purpose of blogging to you?

Blogging is verbalizing experiences. I often notice that I really only understand something once I have put it into words and shared it with others. It also makes some of the dark thoughts look much smaller once you see them on paper (or on the screen). Learning is about analyzing what you have done, and blogging is a way for me to learn. If someone else can learn from my thoughts, all the better.

What do you think is the future of choral music?

Choral music has one big advantage: you do not require training or an instrument to become a choral musician. The marriage of amateur and professional in choral music is much more immediate and natural than in instrumental music. This is something I believe will continue to keep choral music a major mover. It is also a fantastic medium for music education, which is another strength of choral music. Professionalization has happened in all walks of life and I think it must also be one trend in choral music, even if the full-time choirs will probably rather diminish than grow. But freelance and part-time choral singing will probably only grow, as people learn to expect the same kind of professional level as we have in orchestral music.

How your daily practice does look like?

I like to think of what I do as a job. I prepare, I go to work (do a rehearsal), I analyze and plan ahead. I hope my motivation and aspirations are the same as when I started out: I want to perform the very best music the very best way I can. Maybe my thinking of my role has changed quite a bit. I now think my main role is one of enabling; giving the musicians space to express themselves together, with me being more a guiding than commanding force. Reality has also taught me that co-operation on all levels, including administration, is paramount and that you have to be a proper human being towards everyone involved.

What would you name as musicians that inspired you; or pieces that introduced you to something new at the beginning of your career?

There are so many there is no point in naming some people. I have learned so much from so many musicians, many of whom showed an incredible interest in the young me and took me seriously. For this, I am forever indebted. Renaissance music has been a major inspiration to me from my early 20s. And Bach. Always Bach.

Have you ever doubted your talent? How did you work through your doubts?

Every week. Being an artist is walking a fine line between hope and despair. I don’t believe anyone who says they do not doubt themselves. You just have to live with it. Talk to people close to you, share your doubts. And don’t be afraid of those feelings – they are part and parcel of the profession.

How would you describe your conducting style?

My main aims are making singing easy for the choristers and balancing the technical and emotional or expressive. I guess that it would, to an outside viewer, look fairly elegant and flowing (at least I hope it does).

You were a lecturer in various institutions. What have you learned through the process of educating others?

I think pedagogy is very difficult and teaching music especially difficult as you are trying to verbalize the abstract. Making music is such a vulnerable and private venture that it is demanding to balance being clear and being supportive. I have learned a great deal through teaching – I would still not really not know what I am doing when conducting, if teaching had not forced me to analyze my movements and verbalize them. If someone in the end went away with a love for choral music and a desire to be a conductor, I would be happy. And if they had understood that it is enough to be themselves as a conductor, that would be even better.

What is the biggest lesson on creativity you had to learn?

Probably discipline. I needed to take music and conducting seriously – to give myself to it. After that, I think music has looked after me really well.

Are there any future projects that excite you the most?

Every single project excites me. Next week I get to conduct two magnificent works, in a month’s time we are performing the St. John Passion (Bach) and again, in May, we have a glorious new work lined up. I am already living with all of those pieces and I could not be more excited. I find my motivation in the music, not so much in success or being admired.

Thank you for the conversation!

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