Mikko Franck: They're getting younger every day

He's only 22 and has just been described as the greatest conducting talent ever. Sue Fox meets Mikko Franck as he prepares for his LSO debut
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The Independent Culture

The word on the street is that 22-year-old Mikko Franck is possibly the most brilliant yet of the seemingly endless stream of gifted Finnish conductors to have passed through the Sibelius Academy. Critics describe his innate musicality, freshness, absolute focus and maturity way beyond his years. Clive Gillinson, managing director of the London Symphony Orchestra, invited Franck to make his debut with the LSO this month, after Daniel Barenboim told him that Mikko Franck was the greatest conducting talent he had ever seen: "In the arts world, we're used to hearing artists with extraordinary understanding and musical gifts way beyond their age, but it's unusual for a conductor to begin to fulfil their talent so early."

Not that Mikko Franck is looking for orchestras to conduct. Far from it. Like most of his much older colleagues, he is already jetting from one prestigious podium to the next. In September, he takes up his appointment as music director and chief conductor of the Orchestre National de Belgique. There are engagements in North America and Berlin. He has operas to conduct in Scandinavia, including the world premiere of Rasputin by his favourite composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara. In May, he is artistic director and conductor of the Rautavaara Festival with the Helsinki Philharmonic. When we meet at the Hotel Simonkenttä in Helsinki – his home base – he is about to leave for Tel Aviv and seven concerts with the Israel Philharmonic.

Looking out across the square, a neon sign flashing on a building near the Sibelius Academy registers that it is minus 15C. No wonder Franck is excited about flying off to the Mediterranean. "Excited, yes, but also a little bit nervous. I haven't been back since I conducted the Jerusalem Symphony in 1997. I can't believe that by this time tomorrow I'll be there." Eyes shining, he is, for a moment, exactly like a little boy being granted a great treat: "I love Israel. I was only 11 when I went there for the first time, but even then I had a special feeling about the country. I don't know where it came from. I felt completely at home." Chaim Taub, former concert master of the Israel Philharmonic, met Franck in Finland, and wanted him to complete his studies with him. "But I couldn't leave home and my parents at that age, so I was only in Israel for a few weeks," says Franck.

For his LSO debut, Franck will conduct Mahler's Fifth Symphony. Bearing in mind the age of most Mahlerians, I ask if maybe he should have waited until he was a little older to conduct the symphony. "I already conducted it when I was l8," he says, without sounding at all big-headed. "The thing about age is, it's only a number. In my case, 22. It gives information on how long in metrical time since you were born, but it doesn't give any information on what has happened during that time. You can have two people of, say, 30 and 40. The 30-year-old may be very old and the 40-year-old very young. In the end, it doesn't matter. What's important is that as a conductor you can tell a story and draw on your own experiences with what you do with the music."

He hasn't made up his mind yet about what kind of a Mahler Five he will conduct, or what his interpretation will be: "When you work with many different orchestras you need to be adaptable. Of course, I do my work before I come to rehearsal but I also have to listen to the players and see how I can support them and make them play the best they can. That's the only job of a conductor. There is nothing else.

"In the first rehearsals it's my ears which matter far more than my hands. I talk as little as possible. Everything should be absolutely clear from my body language, which changes with each situation. What all musicians have in common is their passion. That's why they went into music. So my role is not about authority, it's about trust and tapping into that passion in order to support the natural way they play – not forcing them to be prisoners of something I've planned before." There is one thing about which, he says smiling, he is clear: "A conductor should have the score in his head, and not his head in the score."

Many people say that if you haven't experienced loss and suffering as well as great joy, you will never be a fully rounded musician. Franck doesn't disagree. "I've had my share of ups and downs – mainly health issues. Throughout my life, music has been in a way my best friend, the force which kept me alive through some very difficult times as well as happy times. It's my constant companion."

The youngest of five children, Franck grew up in a family of non-musicians. He begged for a violin when he was four, and had to wait a year before his parents agreed to let him learn. At the same time, he decided he wanted to be a conductor: "It was some inner call, but I have no idea where it came from." As a child, Franck suffered from severe asthma, which nearly took his life many times. He has no doubt those near-death experiences have informed his approach to music. "Asthma is no longer a problem. I've been well since 1995. So well in fact that this summer, I even learnt to ride a horse for the first time. I've always been so afraid even to touch a horse, because of allergies, but when I found my courage, I discovered that riding is one of the greatest things to take your mind off everything else. It requires all your concentration. I love it."

Franck rarely goes to other people's concerts: "I don't want to go to work on my day off!" He listens to jazz, rock'n'roll and pop music. "But I rarely, if ever, play classical CDs. When I recorded the Sibelius En Saga and Lemminkäinen Legends with the Swedish Radio Symphony [nominated for a Grammy Award], I'd only heard it once – and that was when I conducted it in Germany." He has plans to make a new CD in April; plans that set his eyes shining again. As to orchestra and repertoire, the two must, for the moment, remain secret. "All I can say, is that the music is a very personal piece that has followed me through my life and given me great comfort." Looking for clues, I ask him if there is one composer he would like to have met. "Oh, Sibelius," he says, mischievously. "Based on the stories I've heard, I think we would have had a good time smoking cigars and drinking a little whisky."

Coming from a country where music education is seriously valued and available to every child, rich or poor, and where every city has an orchestra, Mikko Franck can't imagine his life without music. He also can't imagine having an assistant to do all the things conductor's assistants usually do – like making sure his dress shirt is ironed: "That's one job I need to do for myself. When I iron the shirt. I know that I'm preparing myself to go to work." And after, when the concert is over, what happens then? "I try to forget about it as quickly as possible. I have to let the performance go and consign it to history. Letting go doesn't take away from the value of the concert. It's just my way of getting on with my life."

Mikko Franck conducts the LSO in Mahler 5 at the Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891) on 27 Feb at 7.30pm