Ruut Kiiski: "Be yourself, be genuine in every situation"

Ruut Kiiski is a Finnish conductor who is currently the artistic director for Helsinki University’s Academic Choral Society (Akateeminen Laulu), among other projects. We spoke to her about a career in conducting, especially from a female perspective.

How did your musical career begin? Why or how did you decide to dedicate yourself to music professionally?

Music has always been a big part of my family's life. My father is a professional cellist and all of us children played some instrument from quite an early age. I started to play the violin when I was about five years old, maybe because my older sister played the violin too, but all the time I was more interested in piano...  After a couple of years, I stopped playing the violin and started taking piano lessons. Playing the piano suited me much better and piano is still my “main” instrument. Later, I also started singing in a choir and we also had a singing ensemble together with my two sisters. After high school, when I had to decide what I wanted to study, music seemed to be the obvious answer and I applied to the Department of Church Music in the Sibelius Academy. I wasn't sure if being an organist was something I wanted, but the education was interesting and versatile. Luckily I got in and later had my first degree from the Department of Church Music!

Why or how did you get into conducting?

Choir conducting is one of the three main subjects in the church music education. The other two are singing and playing the organ. Everybody has to choose one of these three to be their main subject, and I chose choir conducting. I had sang in choirs for quite many years when I started to study in the Sibelius Academy but I had never conducted before. I didn't have to try conducting many times to know that it was my thing.  I can still remember a very strong feeling which I had during the first choir conducting lessons: “I can do this, I understand how conducting works! I love to be in front of a group of people and I can react to the things they are doing, and they are reacting to my gestures and movements!” It was then that I knew that I wanted to become a choir conductor.

People who are not into classical music may not really understand the role of a conductor. What is a good conductor, in your opinion? What do they bring to a musical production?

A good orchestra or a good choir can sing and play without a conductor. They don't need a conductor to show them how to play the right notes. But they need someone to show them how to play the notes together so that they execute the composer's ideas in the best possible way. A good conductor gives a spirit to the music and helps the musicians to see the bigger form in a music piece. Musicians want to be inspired!

What are some challenges about being a conductor or artistic director? How have you overcome them?

I have always found it easy to be the one in charge. You have to like responsibility to be a conductor. If we think about a choir conductor in charge of an amateur choir (as I am right now in Akateeminen Laulu) the biggest challenge is to combine high level music making with the fact that choir singing is a hobby and all the singers have many other important things in their lives beside the choir. The conductor has to find a balance between the reality and her own artistic ambitions. She has to be true to her own artistic personality but also plan a reasonable, inspirational and not too easy or too difficult a program for the choir. To do that, the conductor has to know her singers and the pros and cons of the group.  

What is a typical “work-day” like in your job?

I work at home a lot. I study new scores by playing them, listening to music, translating texts etc. Rehearsals are usually in the evenings, so I try to take some time off during the afternoons. My work is really irregular, sometimes I might have many quiet weeks in a row. In contrast, during an opera production the whole team works intensively for three to five weeks. But I like to be a freelancer and have the opportunity to travel, meet new people and make my own schedule.

What is something you are proud of in your career so far?

In 2013, I decided to go further with my conducting and I applied to the Royal College of music in Stockholm to study orchestral conducting. I got in and I started to really work to change my status from a choir conductor to a conductor. I wanted people to take me seriously as an orchestral conductor and not just see me as a choir conductor who has also studied orchestral conducting. Even if I was still studying conducting, I really strongly felt that I was studying to get a totally new profession for myself. In Sweden, nobody knew that I was a choir conductor so it was easier to go in front of an orchestra. But in Finland it felt maybe a little harder. But I did it, nowadays I'm a conductor (kapellimestari), I work both in Finland and abroad, and I'm proud of it.

And I just conducted an opera performance being six months pregnant! For me, that was some kind of a strong sign that being a woman and a conductor can go hand in hand. I actually even felt stronger than before, maybe because I had two hearts in me!

Any current projects you would like to share?

Right now I'm studying a new radio opera by Riikka Talvitie. It is a very interesting project with the Radio's Symphony Orchestra and seven singers. The story is loosely based on Kalevala. We will record the orchestral parts just after a few weeks. Then the work continues in a studio where the singers sing their parts and after that everything is put together. I think they will play it on the radio after summer.

Regarding female conductors, what is the situation like in Finland? You have worked/studied in Sweden too, is it any different there?

I think that the situation in Finland is good. But I can only talk for myself, of course. I haven't felt any discrimination and I have had good job opportunities. In Sweden the situation is maybe even better, and the overall atmosphere there is a little different. In Finland we are talking a lot about equality right now, which of course is a good thing. On the other hand, it is almost tiring to talk about being a female conductor. I see myself as a conductor without the prefix and I don't need to talk about it, I just want to do my job. In Sweden the situation has already gone past the talking point. When I lived there, I felt that if I started a discussion on female conductors, it was seen as if I had some problem with the issue. So equality means that there is nothing to talk about, and I have to say it was refreshing! When I work in Sweden, it feels really good and natural that nobody says anything that refers somehow to my gender.

Have you ever experienced any setbacks that you felt had to do with your gender? ​What about moments of empowerment?

There have been setbacks, but not anything that was clearly about my gender. And I always try to think that if something hasn't gone well, I have to work more and try to become better in my work. I don't want to become bitter and think that I'm being treated unfairly if there isn't some very clear reason to believe so.

Finally, what would you say to women aiming to build a career in classical music?

I have only one thing to say: be yourself, be genuine in every situation. There are a lot of people who have a lot of opinions when it comes to women and careers, and they all want to share them. They will tell you that to succeed you have to be more that and less that and that. And because there are for example fewer female conductors, people easily use phrases like “All the female conductors are...” But you are not like all the others, you are you, and that is what is interesting. You cannot go wrong when you are genuine and honest. And always work hard!


Photos: Jukka Kinnunen (lead) and Johanna Mantere (article)