Uncommon diversity defines the conducting posts of John Storgårds. The Finnish maestro is principal guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa and artistic partner of the Munich Chamber Orchestra. Since 1996, he also has served as artistic director of the Chamber Orchestra of Lapland, an 18-piece ensemble based in the Finnish city of Rovaniemi.
“These are all in different directions, and they are all different kinds of orchestras, and my role in each is also different,” Storgårds said. “It makes the situation very rich for myself as a musician. I have the ability to work regularly with four very different, very good orchestras in different roles.”
Because just one of the four posts is a full-on directorship, Storgårds has plenty of time left over for guest conducting, including more or less regular appearances with such American ensembles as the St. Louis and Cincinnati symphonies. “It feels very well balanced at the moment,” he said of his annual line-up of concerts.
Storgårds will make his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in concerts Nov. 30 and Dec. 1-3 featuring works he knows well by two fellow Scandinavians: Grieg’s Suite No. 1 from Peer Gynt and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1. Also on the program is famed soloist Gil Shaham in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.
“The full program was more or less suggested to me,” Storgårds said. “When making a debut at a great orchestra, I feel if there is a good suggestion that makes sense concerning what I’m known for and what is part of my basic repertoire, then I gladly take it. That’s how I feel with this. I feel at home with this repertoire.”
As content as he is with the state of his musical career, Storgårds acknowledges that he would like to be the music director of a larger orchestra, as he was in 2008-2015 with the Helsinki Philharmonic. But he is taking his time, because he wants to make sure he finds the right fit. “There have been things in the air, and I have been offered some things, but I don’t need to rush at the moment,” he said. “When the moment is right, I’ll take the next chief’s job somewhere.”
Meanwhile, he has spent more time during his career with the Chamber Orchestra of Lapland than any other ensemble, leading more than 10 recordings with the group and significantly boosting its profile. The orchestra serves the Finnish portion of Lapland, a vast region that stretches across four countries, much of it above the Arctic Circle. The area has been traditionally inhabited by the Sami people, known in English as Lapps.
“It is the only professional orchestra for the whole, big region of Finnish Lapland, so it has a very important role in that sense in the Finnish music life,” he said. “It’s not a big orchestra. It’s 18 people. But we’re good — a really good little orchestra. I’ve been enjoying working intensely with them for 20 years already, which is quite amazing.”
As marks of the orchestra’s rising international status, it made its North American debut Oct. 12 in Ottawa as part of the Ideas of North Festival, and it appeared in 2014 at the BBC Proms in London. “Already good things were happening when I started, but it was still very provincial, and it didn’t have such a strong role outside Rovaniemi and not even within the whole Lapland area,” he said. “Now, it’s totally different.”
Storgårds, 54, who began his career as a violinist, has long made contemporary music an important part of everything he does. He was a founding member of the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, a Finnish ensemble established in 1983 by conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste and flutist Olli Pohjolad and devoted to contemporary repertoire.
“From the early stages, I got very involved in doing all kinds of contemporary things,” Storgårds said. “One day I was playing a Brahms sextet, and the next day I was doing only contemporary music. It became a very natural thing, and that is how it has been continuing.”