Petri Alanko is the most internationally acclaimed Finnish flutist so far. After winning two major competitions: Kobe (1989) and ARD (1990), Petri Alanko performed as a soloist throughout Europe, the USA, and Japan. He started his professional career as principal flute at the Zurich Opera Orchestra and switched to the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra year after (1988). He has made an impressive number of recordings with all major Finnish orchestras for Avanti and Naxos labels, including Nielsen, Ibert, and Jolivet concertos with the Finnish Radio Symphony under Jukka-Pekka Saraste. Since 2012 Petri Alanko is a faculty member of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and has been a jury member of ARD, Kobe, Nielsen/Odense, Budapest, Beijing, Krakow, etc. competitions.
We met with Petri during the 16th Adams International Flute Festival in the Netherlands and wanted to know more about the Finnish flute school, influential personalities in his life, and sources of inspiration.
You are the most famous Finnish flutist so far. Can you tell us what is the Finnish flute school? What differences do you perhaps see compared to other flute schools?
We are not so many flutists in Finland compared to other regions or countries, so it’s a mix of different schools and influences. My teacher Mikael Helasvuo, who was my professor at the Sibelius Music Academy, was a student of Nicolet and many other flutists of his generation went to study with him. So, Nicolet had a very strong influence in a Finnish flute school. And Nicolet, being Swiss wasn’t typical French or Germain school adept even though he studied in Germany. However, the founding figure and grandfather of the Finnish flute school was Juho Alvas (1919-2007), who was the first well-trained flutist and studied both German and French schools. He was the principal flutist of the Helsinki Philharmonic and taught at the Sibelius Academy whole generation of flutists.
Which teachers do you consider the most influential ones, besides Nicolet? Teachers or people who made you, who inspired you.
I studied in Finland with my flute professor Mikael Helasvuo, then I went to Germany to study with William Bennett, it was a big turning point for me. WIBB really opened my mind, and my approach to flute and music. It was something completely new and different from what I had been exposed to. I studied for only one year with him, but it made a deep impression. After one year he returned to the UK, but I stayed in Germany for one more year with Hans-Peter Schmitz.
Bennett was a British flutist, representing an English school. Can you describe how English school differs from other schools?
Very big and resonant sound, and a very stable intonation, and clear musical phrasing. Of course, Bennett studied with Moyse, so he was influenced by him quite a lot. So, it was a bit mixture of British and French schools that I was exposed to at that time.
You teach quite a lot. Do you see how students have changed comparing them now and let’s say 10 years ago? How do they approach music in times when they are exposed to screens and social media?
Luckily, I have a very good international flute class now. Generally speaking, young people are very impatient nowadays. It is hard to concentrate for them. They are easily distracted by everything. To practice music, you need a lot of concentration, and with mobile phones, it is harder than ever. At the same time, it’s easier now because everything is accessible on youtube. There are a lot of random and different videos available and I’m not sure how that really helps. I think it is better to let to discover something for yourself instead follow what others have discovered.
Do you think that you need somehow motivate them in a way as well?
We have only one university for music in Finland. And we have many applicants, so, motivation is not really an issue. We usually pick up the best from the best which are usually very motivated already. If they were not motivated, I would suggest they consider other professions. So, if you have a motivation problem as a student, it will be increasingly more difficult later to achieve something. You have to be super motivated to keep focus and do your job. So, it’s not my job to motivate students, they have to be motivated to move forward by themselves.
Paul Edmund-Davies taught in his masterclass that everyone who wants to be a better flutist should sing. Do you sing?
I sing in the lessons quite a lot. So, instead of picking up the flute, sometimes I sing because it’s much quicker. Especially if it’s some short phrase, it is much easier to show that way. Besides, sometimes when I take a flute and show them something, they start to imitate me and that’s not good. I don’t want them to sound like me. I want them to sound like the best version of them. Therefore, if I sing there’s no flute sound that they can imitate. Of course, I play in the lessons when I need to show them articulations, and sound colors – things you cannot explain but have to show it.
As a performer, which conductors you enjoyed the most to work with?
Well, I was playing in the Finnish Radio Symphony orchestra for 20 years, and we didn’t have a chance to get the world’s best conductors all the time. Finland is rather a small country where conductors like Abbado or Karajan never visit. It is better now than it was 30 years ago, though. Besides, we are lucky because Finnish conducting school is very strong. So, we have superconductors like Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Paavo Berglund, and so on. Luckily we have our own top conductors now.
When I was playing in the orchestra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste was a chief conductor, and then Sakari Oramo. Now there is a younger generation of talented conductors coming into seen like Klaus Mäkelä, and Susanna Mälkki, but for me personally, Paavo Berglund was the Grandmaster, especially known as a specialist of Sibelius music.
Do you think people know enough about Finnish music, especially flute repertoire?
We are a bit unfortunate because Sibelius didn’t write anything for the flute. He wrote piano and violin pieces but nothing for the flute. And, of course, symphonies, but nothing for the flute. Kaija Saariaho is famous, of course, and she has many pieces for the flute. Flute concerto, solo pieces, chamber music, duos, trios. So, perhaps she is the most known Finnish composer associated with the flute.
What is your opinion about transcriptions of some famous repertoire? For instance – have you listened to the Denis Bouriakov version of Sibelius’s violin concerto for flute?
Yes, I’ve heard about it, but I wouldn’t play it in Finland, though. It’s such a violin piece, I wouldn’t really dare, perhaps just at home, for fun, and that’s it. Besides, no orchestra in Finland would consider such an offer seriously.
What about inspiration? What inspires you, besides nature?
I think that working with the students is very inspirational. Young people have a lot of energy. I learn a lot from them. It’s about communication very much as well. Of course, I’m more experienced, and I have played perhaps 1000 concerts more than them, but still, the world is changing so fast, and they usually come with some new knowledge, so, it’s a two-way communication. And I think that the old approach when you said “I’m a master and you ought to do what I tell you to do” is not working anymore. It has to be more reason and discussion there. You suggest something and they try it out, it is always two-way communication.
Because we don’t know what the world will be like in 10 years, so they must have some tools that they can do it themselves. They have to have a responsibility and a way how to find some things by themselves, and not that I will tell them what to do. That kind of approach, when you tell what to do to your students is outdated, it’s old school that can’t be productive anymore.