50 years old | As a teenager, Jukka Iisakkila listened to guitarist Steve Vai’s solo record in Valkeakoski, and now he is involved in recording Vai’s symphonic orchestral music

“Music is a limitless universe that you can never know too much about,” says multi-degreed Jukka Iisakkila.

Good conductor on a weekday Jukka Iisakkila have time to play the electric guitar under your own circumstances for at least an hour, maybe two. But not just for fun, because he is also a guitarist who graduated from Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Music, and is currently planning his second solo album.

“The need to play is physical and psychological, and it was at the heart of my musicianship in the beginning. And, of course, I want to maintain all kinds of skills, including my finger skills,” says Iisakkila, whose own music as a guitarist is prog rock and jazz rock. He plays them now as a bass player Pekka Pohjolan in the Breed band dedicated to music.

The unthinking might wonder how this fits a conductor who specializes in new classical music, conducts symphony orchestras, and is also a teacher of orchestra conducting.

“I used to think about it myself, but I no longer care about images and the opinions of others. After a crisis about ten years ago, I realized that I shouldn’t try to fit into a mold, which is, however, partly my own creation,” says Iisakkila.

“I thought I was my thoughts, as we sometimes do.”

Guitar has accompanied Iisakkila, who grew up in Valkeakoski, for forty years, but it was not the first, nor even the second instrument. Born into a Hämälä pelimanni family, Iisakkila started his music college studies with piano and then took classical percussion as a secondary subject.

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As a beginning percussionist, he got the much-needed first contact with orchestral musicianship and planned a career so seriously that he graduated as a percussionist from the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music. Later, he worked in the Jyväskylä Sinfonia and the Vaasa City Orchestra, among others.

“I haven’t had time to play percussion for a long time, but I recognize the benefits. For example, that the rhythmic twists of modern orchestral music have never felt difficult as a conductor,” says Iisakkila, who graduated as a conductor from Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Music in his thirties in 2005.

Before that, he had already completed university degrees in percussion and guitar, and in 1996 also in musicology. And now he is preparing an artistic doctorate for the Sibelius Academy on the absurdism of three contemporary composers.

“Curiosity has always encouraged me to study, not results or degrees. Music is a limitless universe that you can never know too much about,” assures Iisakkila.

He became enthusiastic about conducting during his studies in Jyväskylä, when his future Stockholm teacher and later mentor Jorma Panula stepped out to lead the first performance’s grueling rehearsals.

“I suddenly understood the musical significance of being a conductor and wanted to get familiar with this aspect of doing things as well.”

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Iisakkila has conducted Finnish and foreign orchestras for twenty years now, ever since he won the Nordic Conducting Competition held in Sweden in 2002 when he was a student. So far, his longest engagement has been with the Pori Sinfonietta, where he was chief conductor and artistic director for six years.

“I like the role of a visitor more. It gives me more freedom of movement.”

Jukka Iisakkila has all the scores of the Steve Vai project and Vain guitara on his desk.

Latest a foreign acquaintance is the Dutch Metropole Orkest, with whom Iisakkila has an almost larger-than-life project going on. In May, he recorded three or four albums of rock guitarists with the orchestra Steve Vain symphonic music. Vai himself was involved as a soloist.

The collaboration began in 2018, when the Tapiola Sinfonietta led by Iisakkila performed ten Vai compositions in the Huvila tent, with Vai as the soloist, of course.

“I really appreciate him as a composer, he is very unique and knows how to write beautifully for an orchestra,” says Iisakkila and reminds us of the personal nature of the record project that will continue in Tampere in August.

His first major album was Vain debut album Flex-Able (1984), which he found on the shelf of his father, who played the double bass. “I listened to it and looked at Vain posters that I had taped on the wall of my room”, Iisakkila recalls with a smile.

“At the time, I couldn’t even dream that I would work with him one day.”

  • Born 1972 in Valkeakoski.

  • Percussionist, Royal Danish Conservatory of Music 1995.

  • Master of Philosophy, University of Jyväskylä 1996, majoring in musicology.

  • Guitarist, Stockholm Royal College of Music jazz department 2004.

  • Conductor, Stockholm Royal Academy of Music 2005.

  • Chief conductor and artistic director of Pori Sinfonietta 2006–2012

  • Guest conductor of Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra, Danish Radio Chamber Orchestra and Symphony Orchestra, Stavanger Symphony Orchestra and Metropole Orchestra, among others.

  • Assistant professor of orchestra conducting at the University of Stavanger in Norway since 2019.

  • My first album Clocks and Clouds2018. About ten albums as a conductor.

  • Spouse violinist Susanna Arminen, with whom we have a school-age child.

  • Turns 50 on Wednesday July 6th.

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The collaboration between conductor Jukka Iisakkila (right) and guitarist Steve Vai began in August 2018 at the Huvila concert during the Helsinki holiday weeks, where the Tapiola Sinfonietta performed Vai’s music. Photo of the rehearsals for the concert.

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