Tarmo Peltokoski, 24, named as HK Phil’s next music director. Why he ‘couldn’t say no’

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HK Phil) has named young Finnish conductor Tarmo Peltokoski as its next music director.

The 24-year-old succeeds the 63-year-old Dutch maestro Jaap van Zweden, who led the orchestra for a record 12 years.

The choice by one of Asia’s top orchestras of Peltokoski to lead it is likely to cause a stir given his young age; his initial, five-year contract as music director will formally begin in September 2026, when he will be 26.

“He is young and my perspective is that here’s somebody who doesn’t carry with him the negative potential baggage that tends to come with a long career in a difficult business,” said bass-baritone Isaac Droscha, senior lecturer in humanities at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

“This is someone in the springtime of his career, and he will bring that energy to what is by many accounts Asia’s premier orchestra.”

A concert pianist by training and mentored by Finland’s best-known conducting pedagogue Jorma Panula since the age of 14, Peltokoski had already been named music director of two orchestra before the July 4 announcement of his Hong Kong appointment.

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Finnish conductor Tarmo Peltokoski, born in 2000, will be the ninth music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra when he takes up the post in 2026. Photo: Keith Hiro/HK Phil

He has led the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra since 2022, and is scheduled to take over as music director of French regional ensemble the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse in 2025.

Best-known for his passion for Wagner operas – it was watching the ending of Siegfried on YouTube that made an 11-year-old Peltokoski decide to become a conductor – he completed his first Wagner Ring cycle at the Eurajoki Bel Canto Festival in 2022. It was the HK Phil’s recordings of the epic four-opera cycle by Wagner under van Zweden that won it the honour of Gramophone Orchestra of the Year in 2019.

In an interview with the Post shortly before the official announcement, Peltokoski, whose mother is Filipino, said he looked forward to building up a “versatile repertoire” in Hong Kong while also continuing HK Phil’s great tradition of playing Wagner.

“[Wagner] is in their blood already, so we are going to start from a very high level,” he said.

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Soloists and conductor Jaap van Zweden with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus and the Netherlands Radio Choir after a performance of Wagner in June, 2024. Photo: Desmond Chan/HK Phil

Peltokoski said he “couldn’t say no” to the offer of becoming the orchestra’s ninth music director after conducting HK Phil last year in a highly praised debut, and observing the orchestra perform in Rotterdam in March during its European tour with van Zweden.

“The level is just so high and the precision of the music-making is so excellent. I couldn’t really ask for more in an orchestra,” he said.

He will reunite with the HK Phil on July 5 and 6 in a programme featuring Mahler’s Symphony No 5 and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 2, with Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho as the soloist.

There are plans for Peltokoski to take the orchestra on tour regularly to raise its international profile, as well as to release recordings under the Deutsche Grammophon label, with which he signed an exclusive recording contract in October 2023. DG earlier issued his debut album of Mozart symphonies with German regional orchestra the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, where he is principal guest conductor.

Peltokoski’s appointment was made after a lengthy search by Hong Kong’s most well-funded performing arts group for van Zweden’s successor that began in 2021, and which saw a string of potential candidates appear with the HK Phil as guest conductors.

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Jaap van Zweden during his final interview as music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo: Keith Hiro/HK Phi)

The final decision took into account a vote by orchestra members and was made by a search committee made up of orchestra representatives, management and board members.

Jing Wang, concertmaster of the HK Phil and a member of the music director search committee, said: “His debut concerts with the HK Phil last year were inspiring, and his talent was immediately apparent. He is a highly energetic conductor with a great passion for music.

“The orchestra and I look forward to many years of great musicmaking together in the coming years.”

Experience depends on how much you do something. And conducting is something I have been doing for a long time
Tarmo Peltokoski on why his young age is not a disadvantage

The orchestra, which received HK$93.5 million (US$11.97 million) in funding from the Hong Kong government in the 2023-24 financial year, and signed a three-year, HK$50 million sponsorship deal with conglomerate Swire Group in April 2024, said the contract with Peltokoski requires him to conduct for seven weeks in Hong Kong during his first full season in 2026.

He will be back in Hong Kong in September 2024 to conduct the opening concert of the orchestra’s 2024/25 season, a programme featuring Bruckner’s ninth symphony in the week in which the 200th anniversary of the Austrian composer’s birth falls.

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At 24, Tarmo Peltokoski is part of a wave of young conductors picked to lead orchestras. Among them, fellow Finn Klaus Mäkelä, 28, will become music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2025. Photo: Keith Hiro/HK Phil

Droscha said the appointment put Hong Kong at the vanguard of a global trend which has seen young conductors taking the helm of major orchestras, including the recent announcement that Peltokoski’s countryman Klaus Mäkelä, 28, will become music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2025.

Peltokoski said he does not consider his age a disadvantage. “That’s something I don’t really consciously think of. Experience happens slowly but it also depends on how much you do something. And conducting is something I have been doing for a long time. I have focused all my life on it,” he said.

Unlike his predecessor, who avoids socialising with orchestra members on principle, Peltokoski said he looks forward to getting to know the musicians personally.

“I very much like to get to know them, partly for the practical reason that I am afraid I’ll be very lonely here. It is a lonely life. I want to have friends around and I want to feel that I belong here,” he said.

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Peltokoski (left) and David Cogman, chairman of the board of the HK Phil, sign the contract that makes Peltokoski music director designate. Photo: Enid Tsui

David Cogman, chairman of the board of governors of the HK Phil and of the music director search committee, said of Peltokoski: “He is a remarkable and visionary musician, and we are very fortunate that he will write the next chapter in our orchestra’s history.”

Winnie Tam Wan-chi, vice chairman of the board of the HK Phil, said: “His European reputation is rising really fast and I am looking forward to how he and the orchestra will go from strength to strength. He has so much potential.”

Irene Au is a music industry veteran in Hong Kong involved in music education and concert promotion, and is the founding director of the Vienna Boys Choir Music Academy Hong Kong. She said:

“The appointment of 24-year-old Tarmo Peltokoski as the new music director of the HK Phil is an exciting and bold choice.

“As a conductor born in the 21st century, Peltokoski’s unique experiences and fresh perspectives are expected to help evolve the orchestra’s programming, educational initiatives and community outreach – broadening the orchestra’s appeal, especially among younger audiences.

“This generational shift in leadership is poised to bring a renewed sense of adventure, exploration and connection to the HK Phil’s journey in the years ahead.”

“Season Finale: Tarmo Peltokoski & Seong-jin Cho”, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, July 5-6, 8pm.

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