Culture - Tuesday 28.5.2002

Muhai Tang the unanimous choice at National Opera

 "Performing should be like you are in a doomed aircraft"

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By Vesa Sirén

The Chinese conductor Muhai Tang, 52, is to become the new Chief Conductor of the Finnish National Opera. Tang takes up his appointment from January 2003, and will hold the post until the end of the spring season in 2006.
He is expected to conduct at least 30 performances each year, and his first appearance in front of the FNO Orchestra following his selection will be on June 3rd, when he wields the baton in a concert by Finnish soprano Karita Mattila. Those without a ticket need not bother; the concert sold out within hours of the tickets going on sale in April.
However, even if this concert is off-limits to most, the National Opera also revealed its programme for the upcoming season yesterday (Thursday 23rd). Tang will be starting with some old productions retained in the repertoire: he is to conduct Puccini's Tosca and La Rondine, and Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.
"My first première will be with Puccini's Turandot in January 2004. I shall be conducting four entirely new opera productions in the space of three and a half years. I also intend to conduct the most important new ballet works to come into the repertoire", explained Tang.

There was something of a mystery
hanging over the appointment of a new Chief Conductor, and Muhai Tang claims he had no idea he was even being head-hunted. The FNO's General Director Erkki Korhonen invited no fewer than ten conductors to Helsinki to guest with the orchestra. The visitors did not know they were being sized up as potential candidates.
"I had no idea!" says Tang. "I just came to conduct a performance of Madama Butterfly and I tried to get through it as best I could. And then later I heard the orchestra had voted and had supported me for the job of Chief Conductor!"
The offer from Helsinki came at an opportune moment for Tang. Last year he ended a 12-year spell with the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon. "As a very nice going-away present we won a Grammy for the best performance of a classical contemporary composition!" enthuses Tang, and he digs into his pocket and pulls out the gold medal.

Tang will still be guesting
with the Gulbenkian, but he left the China National Symphony last fall with the doors banging behind him. The orchestra manager appointed by the Ministry of Culture did not meet with Tang's approval.
"Yes, I have parted company with the China National Symphony for the time being, but that does not mean I have left China. I shall be doing a New Year's concert with the Beijing Symphony and the London Royal Philharmonic, for instance."
At lunch after the press conference to announce his appointment, Tang can be seen giving a very friendly telephone interview to a Beijing news agency.
"It seems I am already on the Chinese TV evening news because of the appointment", he beams.
Tang studied in Shanghai and was obliged to suffer a good deal for his art. His father is the film director XiaoDan Tang, who was imprisoned for his views during the Cultural Revolution.
"I was a schoolboy during the years of tyranny under the Cultural Revolution, for which my country later apologised. Back then I dreamed of seeing the world. Now I've done it, and I can get on and concentrate on my work."

Muhai Tang graduated from the Munich Academy of Music in the summer of 1983. Herbert von Karajan picked him out as a name to watch and selected him as the conductor to open the Berlin Philharmonic's autumn season that year. Tang's career leapt into gear overnight.
"Soon I was conducting all over the continent, and often in Australia and up here in Scandinavia."
The Fazer Concert Agency brought him to Finland on several occasions with great success. "Yes, the concerts went well and we got requests for further visits without having to put any pressure on anyone", confirms Tuula Sarotie, who has since moved from Fazer to become Manager of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

He clearly also left
a good impression on the members of the FNO Orchestra with his Madama Butterfly.
"Tang was given a unanimous thumbs-up by the orchestra members", reports flautist Timo Pulakka, the chairman of the orchestra's council. "Ralf Weikert was another to receive the full support of the orchestra and he will be a welcome visitor in future, too."
Tang and Weikert were not voted on at the same time, as the orchestra members were asked their opinions of ten conductors at different times over a two-year period.
"Tang breathed new life into Butterfly with only a couple of rehearsals and he managed to get his own thumbprint across without doing any injury to the music. He used the rehearsal time at his disposal very effectively", observes Pulakka.

The story of the appointment
requires a little background.
The National Opera found itself unexpectedly without a permanent Chief Conductor in December 1999, when Okko Kamu (1996-2000) was fast approaching the end of his term.
Leif Segerstam, who had already agreed to move up the road from the Helsinki Philharmonic and was scheduled to start from the beginning of 2001, suddenly withdraw his acceptance when Erkki Korhonen was appointed General Director of the Opera. Segerstam felt that the views of the staff had been over-ridden by the Opera Board in the selection process, and he decided to vote with his feet.
"Leif is a good friend of mine. I don't see this affecting relations between us", says Tang.

Despite the interregnum
, Erkki Korhonen was in no great hurry to make a decision on a permanent appointment, as Leif Segerstam had taken all the most important conducting gigs for himself in the 2000 and 2001 seasons, even though he refused to take the permanent post.
The Deputy Chairman of the Opera's Board of Governors Matti Ahde, says that nevertheless the time had now come to make a decision.
"The General Director had the Board's full support throughout the selection process, and he kept us briefed on how things were going every month. The board had hoped for a proposal before the summer recess and that is exactly what we got. Korhonen's first season in charge was great, and the atmosphere in the house has improved", said Ahde.
Matti Ahde was one of the "gang of three" who picked Korhonen in the first place, and therefore it was not difficult for the General Director to take Tang's name before his backers for their approval.

"There were a number
of other admirable alternatives", Korhonen says "But things just seemed to fall nicely into place like this."
On the question of who might those names have been (apart from Tang and Weikert), Korhonen does not go further than to divulge that there were around a dozen candidates, some of them Finnish. Korhonen is known to have asked after Esa-Pekka Salonen. Salonen was reportedly not interested in taking the position, though he is by no means averse to guesting with the FNO.
"Salonen will be conducting Kaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin in Helsinki, and we are just now negotiating over visits to New York, as well."

As well as competing
with Salonen for the limelight, Tang will be lending his orchestra to Mikko Franck and to a few other Finnish conductors during his time at the helm.
"My job is to take care of things when the top Finnish names are apparently unavailable", says Tang politely and modestly.
And what sort of things would those be?
"The quality of the performances and the spirit that goes into them! The score is our Bible, and our job is to bring it to life", explains Tang.
"Every day we have to perform as if it were our last chance! As if our lives depended on it! As if we were in a plane plunging into the World Trade Center and we had our final seconds to communicate with our nearest and dearest!"
Phew! That's a pretty tall order, surely?
"It is one reason why the orchestra will have to be expanded slightly. Otherwise it will not be possible to get the necessary charge out of the musicians night after night. This opera house has the most enormous potential, but there is always room for improvement in passion and intonation, and in the rhythmic precision."

The FNO is an ensemble house
with its own body of permanent soloists, and visiting soloists are something of a rarity. Is Tang going to do something to change this, or will he be content to continue the status quo?
"I'm happy as things are. This is my basic approach. Ensemble work brings the drama to life in a way that putting together a bunch of highly-paid stars never can. That's not to say of course that we won't have guest stars appearing from time to time."

Muhai Tang says he is keen
to get to grips with some Finnish operas.
"This country has been an opera Mecca ever since the first works from Aulis Sallinen and Joonas Kokkonen. I have already conducted a good deal of Finnish orchestral music, and now I'm eager to get my teeth into Finnish operas."

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 24.5.2002

More on this subject:
 Muhai Tang the unanimous choice at National Opera
 FACTFILE: Dario Fo to direct Rossini in upcoming opera season

Previously in HS International Edition:
 Background to the Opera's revolving doors in late 1999
 Muhai Tang gets call-up as new chief conductor of National Opera (24.5.2002)

VESA SIREN / Helsingin Sanomat

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