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The orchestra’s secret 

When the conductor raises his baton for the first time, Olavinlinna is filled with the sound of a large orchestra. Every nuance is finely honed and tells the story of the evening’s opera. At moments such as these, it seems extraordinary that the Opera Festival Orchestra only meets for five weeks each year. What is the orchestra’s secret? We asked clarinettist Patrik Stenström. 

The Opera Festival Orchestra is like the swallows of Olavinlinna Castle: a sure sign of summer. Its members fly in to Savonlinna from all directions, but once the festival begins, there is no doubt that the orchestra has bonded. It propels and sustains the opera performance from start to finish.  

The orchestra does not rehearse together except during the festival season. When they arrive in Savonlinna, all the musicians already know their parts, so that they can immediately start to develop the orchestra’s sound, playing together and reacting under the direction of the conductor.   

The Opera Festival Orchestra is reconstituted every spring. There are no applications for the jobs; musicians are invited to join. ‘Only top-level players are selected, usually musicians from the country’s symphony orchestras, but also freelancers. All of them have already proven themselves as professionals in their field, and the orchestra can select the ones best suited to the circumstances and the way it works’, says Patrik Stenström, chairman of the orchestra’s committee and one of its trustees. In the summer of 2024, the orchestra will comprise 81 musicians. 

The challenges and magic of orchestral work 

The intensive workload of rehearsals and performances requires musicians to be able to assimilate new things quickly and to be aware of their place in the group. ‘You have to prepare well in advance, because once the work starts there is no time to learn your own part. It’s also good to be able to allocate your energy wisely; managing rest and recovery is key.’ Patrik Stenström talks about mental resilience, flexibility, because the circumstances are indeed different.  

At Olavinlinna they are at the mercy of the summer weather: ‘It is reflected directly in the orchestra pit. The combination of cold and humidity is the worst, but too much heat is no fun either. The instruments are also badly affected by major fluctuations in the weather.’  

“It’s exceptional to be able to play in a large opera festival orchestra that comes together for five intense weeks to form a unique ensemble and then breaks up again for almost a year.”

The acoustics of the castle courtyard are also unique in many ways. The walls make the performances sound wonderful to the audience, but also affect how well the players can hear each other. The orchestra pit is very wide and shallow. ‘Sound reflections that confuse the acoustic image sometimes make it challenging to play together. You often have to trust the conductor absolutely, and you can’t always rely on your own ears’, says Stenström.  

And yet – or perhaps for this very reason – many players return to the orchestra year after year; it has a very good spirit of collaboration. Patrik Stenström has been with the orchestra for fifteen seasons, even though the festival takes up the majority of his summer holidays from his day job. The record is held by hornist Kalervo Kulmala, who played with the orchestra for more than forty summers.  

‘Everything’, says Patrik Stenström when asked what is so magical about the Opera Festival. ‘The town, the castle, the atmosphere, the colleagues, the genuine sense of accomplishment. And of course the financial aspects are also important. It’s exceptional to be able to play in a large opera festival orchestra that comes together for five intense weeks to form a unique ensemble and then breaks up again for almost a year. You meet colleagues and friends from all over the country, not to mention the audience. Olavinlinna never loses its magic.’ 

 More information about Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra here.