He's big, he's weird, he's here

The Helsinki Hercules arrives with swarming hormones.
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Generations of bodybuilders and would-be muscle-men have devoted hours of painful, repetitive exercise in pursuit of maximum forearm growth, the most visible sign of macho strength. Leif Segerstam, meanwhile, appears to have developed Herculean arms thanks to little more strenuous than eating healthy portions of sushi and raising a Guinness glass. The 51-year-old Finnish conductor and composer says his "hormones are swarming", a typical burst of Leif-speak that helps explain his transformation from teenage Elvis lookalike to Nordic giant.

He describes his appearance as a mixture of Karl Marx, Johannes Brahms and Santa Claus, although Conan the Barbarian springs just as readily to mind. The magnificent bulk, booming voice and wild-man hairdo belie Segerstam's softer side, most eloquently expressed in his highly personal, often revelatory, approach to music-making, quirky sense of humour and sensitive blue eyes. His compositions likewise combine big, bold gestures with moments of coruscating beauty and gentle self-parody.

The act of composing, he explains, serves as therapy, generally pursued during summer holidays and short breaks between conducting engagements. "It's a way of surviving the possible brainstorm or personality change that you could have, when you are a blood, sweat and tears personality. Just think of me giving my whole organ to become another Brahms, Mahler or Sibelius. If I would give in to that, or any of the Wagner viruses that I have in my system, how could I survive without being strong, fluent and certain about my own music? Fortunately. I'm very quick at musicising. New word, by the way - not bad!"

Segerstam's most recent works, including his Symphonies Nos 20 and 21, are scored for large conductorless orchestra, a break with tradition that he argues is as important and radical as Schoenberg's "Neanderthalic" 12-tone system. "I am a positive person, because I have put my finger on the essence of music, on the 'now point' of time in music-making and experiencing. There are only two types of music: live music and dead music. To recognise the first, you just have to be an open human being. I don't feel ashamed to say that my music now is unlike anything else being written."

Segerstam is blessed with the advantage of being a musician's musician, a fine violinist, capable pianist and master of almost every imaginable orchestral instrument. He has the gift of perfect pitch, a clear stick technique and a happy line in rehearsal phrases. Besides his conducting activities, he has cut discs as a jazz pianist and even starred on Finnish television as a jazz-playing recorder virtuoso.

Next week, Segerstam arrives in Britain with the Helsinki Philharmonic, opening a seven-city, eight-day tour on 9 November at Bristol's Colston Hall, his first overseas jaunt as the orchestra's new chief conductor. Not for the first time, works by Sibelius and Segerstam are included in the tour programme, together with Mozart's Piano Concerto No 27 and Brahms's Piano Concerto No 1, to be played by Stephen Kovacevich. "It seemed right for me to accept the job with the Helsinki Philharmonic. Next year I make Wagner's Ring at the Helsinki Opera and we have strong plans for the future. This is my home town, and there are the makings of a very fine orchestra with so many good young players."

Perhaps so, but seasoned observers of the conducting scene might conclude that Segerstam - a Juilliard-trained wunderkind, nurtured by Herbert von Karajan - has failed to translate early promise into the international recognition now enjoyed by such former college classmates as James Levine or Leonard Slatkin. Career enhancement, he says, is not the chief consideration in his musical life, a claim that rings true in view of Segerstam's decision to manage his own affairs. Segerstam's determination to control his destiny is sustained by an unswerving self-belief, not surprising from someone with so many musical talents but arguably a source of irritation to those who prefer to mould classical musicians after the image of their pop brethren. Integrity may be open to interpretation, he says, but he is neither about to change his looks and lifestyle, nor abandon promoting his own compositions to achieve stardom.

"Dear concert-music lover," runs the conductor's homily in his orchestra's brochure, "before take-off, air travellers are requested to observe safety instructions and fasten their seat belts, but before taking off on the next season's flights into the world of music with the Helsinki Philharmonic I would urge listeners to adopt a frame of mind that is as open and free as possible, so that the power to enrapture of 'Leif-Live', rich and stimulating, here and now, can bore deep into the consciousness... cast yourself adrift on armchair musical adventures and you may find them transformed into a source of battery-recharging energy, of healing hypnotherapeutic powers."

At times Segerstam chooses to brighten an otherwise dull English sentence by introducing grammatical structures from each of his seven languages, a technique that apparently combines elements of Finnish, Swedish, Danish, German, Italian, French and Japanese. "It's Alpha and Omega for a conductor that you should be sensitive to breathing and singing, and that you should have the bowing kind of feeling in your plasmatic, blood-sweat-and-tears system," says the conductor. And how can you argue with that?

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