John Storgårds: meet the BBC Philharmonic orchestra’s new chief conductor who loves Manchester

John Storgårds, the BBC Philharmonic’s new chief conductor, is delighted to be spending more time in Manchester - he spoke about his love for the city’s music audiences, food and football.

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For the BBC Philharmonic’s new chief conductor John Storgårds, the prospect of spending more time in Manchester is one that fills him with delight. The Finnish maestro has a deep love for the city, whether it is standing on the podium waving his baton in a hall packed with classical music fans, delving into its vibrant food scene or heading to a football match.

John’s appointment as chief conductor of the orchestra based at MediaCity in Salford is the latest stage of a relationship with the ensemble and its audiences which has steadily grown over more than a decade through a series of guest conducting roles.

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As he prepares to get stuck into his new post John told ManchesterWorld just what it is that he adores so much about Manchester and why he could now be said to be something of an honorary Manc.

With the orchestra’s programme for this spring with John on the podium released, there are also the first indications of what classical music fans can look forward to from the new partnership.

Who is John Storgårds?

Born in the Finnish capital Helsinki, John originally studied classical music as a violinist and helped to found a chamber ensemble as well as performed in orchestras before he returned to the city’s famous Sibelius Academy to study conducting.

His relationship with the BBC Philharmonic dates back over a decade, as he first conducted the orchestra in 2010. He became principal guest conductor in 2012 and held the position of chief guest conductor between 2017 and 2022.

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As well as his time in Salford John has also developed a significant long-term relationship with the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, becoming its artistic director in 1996. He has now been working with the ensemble based in the town of Rovaniemi, which is the northernmost professional chamber group in Finland and the European Union, for more than 25 years.

John Storgårds, the new chief conductor of the Salford-based BBC Philharmonic orchestra. Photo: Marco BorggreveJohn Storgårds, the new chief conductor of the Salford-based BBC Philharmonic orchestra. Photo: Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds, the new chief conductor of the Salford-based BBC Philharmonic orchestra. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Over the years of his career John has conducted a whole swathe of orchestral music from the classical repertoire, including the symphonies of Bruckner, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Schumann as well as notable Scandinavian talents such as his fellow Finn Jean Sibelius and the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. He also enjoys conducting contemporary music and has performed a number of world premieres.

So far his time in Salford has included regular appearances with the BBC Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall for the world-famous BBC Proms music festival as well as numerous trips to the studio with the orchestra for Chandos Records. His work on disc includes a cycle of Sibelius’ seven symphonies which came out in 2013 and was acclaimed by critics.

What has John Storgårds said about becoming the BBC Philharmonic chief conductor?

John spoke of his delight at getting to work even more closely with an orchestra with which he clearly has a rapport. He said: “My new role as chief conductor for this wonderful orchestra is carefully built up on the experiences we’ve had together already for many years.

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“I started as principal guest, then became chief guest, and am now chief conductor. Isn’t that rare and wonderful? We know each other very well already from before, which gives us a fantastic opportunity to now still develop - together!

On beginning to work with the BBC Philharmonic back in 2010, John said: “I immediately liked the working atmosphere within the BBC Phil, as well as their many funny traditions when it came to reactions during recordings mentioning specific bar numbers or pitches. This all had to do with the orchestra’s (already long) history and its many details.

“One thing that I also constantly love with the BBC Phil is their ability to learn (for them) new and tricky music stuff - of all kinds of styles - very fast. And the intense ‘go for it’ attitude when we are studio recording; not all orchestras have that!”

John Storgards. Photo: Marco BorggreveJohn Storgards. Photo: Marco Borggreve
John Storgards. Photo: Marco Borggreve

But having already served a variety of guest conducting roles with the BBC Philharmonic, what exactly does stepping up to be chief conductor mean? John explained his new role: “I will have still more working weeks and still more responsibility for certain plans and things, every season.

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“Of course my role as chief also makes me more a part of the whole everyday image and brand of the orchestra, and strengthens the need for me to be psychologically and humanly near and present, to all the musicians and the whole organisation, even during those weeks when I’m not physically there. And my impact on the playing, sound, broadening of repertoire and the musical development of the orchestra should and will be stronger than before.”

An idea of what that might mean for Manchester’s classical music enthusiasts can be gleaned from a look at the orchestra’s spring programme of appearances at The Bridgewater Hall. In April he conducted an orchestral suite by his homeland’s most famous composer Sibelius alongside Rachmaninov’s fearsomely-difficult Piano Concerto No.3, while May brings more Sibelius (this time his Violin Concerto) and more Russian music in the shape of Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony.

Typically the BBC Philharmonic plays around 100 concerts a year, with a fairly large amount of new music included in that. John says he is looking forward to bringing a varied musical diet to Manchester as well as getting out on the road with the orchestra.

He said: “There is a lot of music and repertoire which I will be delighted to help bring in, and many concert and recording projects that I’m especially looking forward to. I also hope that we, at some point, can get back to important international touring like the huge, great European tour I did with the orchestra as chief guest conductor, right before the pandemic.”

Why does John love Manchester so much?

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John said one of the things that struck him when he first arrived in Manchester to conduct the BBC Philharmonic in 2010 was how many good Indian restaurants the city had. He described the city’s food scene as “culturally rich” and said he enjoys nothing more than strolling through some of Manchester’s quieter and greener spaces on his way to find somewhere good to eat.

John’s arrival in Manchester also meant he could get to know better the city’s two Premier League football teams which he watched and admired growing up in Finland. On getting here he decided to pin his colours to United’s mast and he is a regular at Old Trafford for matches, now with his children supporting the team alongside him. Getting to United games is not too tricky for John as the stadium is just a few hundred metres from the orchestra’s MediaCity base.

John also likes the city’s people, saying he finds similarities between the attitudes of Mancunians and the Finnish people.

BBC Philharmonic chief conductor John Storgards. Photo: Marco BorggreveBBC Philharmonic chief conductor John Storgards. Photo: Marco Borggreve
BBC Philharmonic chief conductor John Storgards. Photo: Marco Borggreve

He said: “Generally within Manchester I find a kind of ‘northern straightness and frankness’ among people, which helps me very much to feel at home, as the Finn that I am.”

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He also waxed lyrical about the city’s music fans, praising their open-mindedness and enthusiasm for exploring sounds and works. He is also hoping to coax more Mancunians through the concert hall doors as he has a particular passion for drawing newcomers into the world of classical music.

He said: “There’s no problem with bringing new things to Manchester; whatever part of the world the piece is from, or whatever style, I still feel the concentration and the will to listen intensely from the audience and that inspires you as a performer in the moment very much.

”There’s always that unique communication with the audience and believe me, one can feel a lot behind one’s back. If you are a conductor, you definitely feel what is going on behind you. You can tell if these people are really with you or not... and in Manchester, they are always with you.”

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