Anu Tali has just poured herself an afternoon pick-me-up cup of coffee, and sits down just as her phone rings. She picks it up before the first ring finishes:
“Hello!” she cheerfully answers.
It’s 4:30 p.m. in Estonia and 9:30 a.m. in Sarasota — but Tali says, if someone needs to speak to her regarding her appointment as music director of Sarasota Orchestra, that she’d gladly talk to that person in the middle of the night.
Following an 18-month search, the orchestra announced Tuesday, June 11, that Anu Tali will fill the vacancy left by Leif Bjaland, who was the director for 15 years. She signed a three-year contract, which is effective Aug. 1.
Tali received rave reviews when she guest conducted in 2011. Unbeknownst to the Sarasota audience, the search committee had asked her if she’d be interested in auditioning for the position when they contracted her return for a second appearance in winter 2013.
“I didn’t want to give them a clear ‘yes’ until I had met the orchestra one more time — it was important for both me and them that it would be a good match,” she says. “I like to be sure.”
When she directed the third Masterworks program this past season, Tali found the musicians were more active, less timid and exhibited more artistry. She found that they could take risks together and take the music further.
Following the performance, the audience gave her a standing ovation and yelled, “We love you.” Tali replied in kind: “I love you, too!”
That kind of vocal reaction is rare in Europe, but Tali says that it was lovely and emotional for her.
Following the last matinee concert in the program, Tali went to the airport to head back to Estonia, and found her flight had taken off two hours early.
Sarasota Orchestra President and CEO Joseph McKenna and Vice President of Operations and Artistic Planning Pat Joslyn changed her ticket for the next possible flight the following day. Joslyn took her to dinner that night. Tali calls it “our own little story,” and says it drew them closer as a team.
“They are extremely beside and behind me, and that is almost as important as the orchestra — having a good team,” she says.
This kind of relationship is important for Tali, whose twin sister, Kadri Tali, is her familial and professional teammate. In 1997, when they were just 25-years-old, they founded the Nordic Symphony Orchestra (NSO). It’s a festival orchestra, consisting of musicians from all over the world, which meets twice a year and has a few hit recordings.
“We started it off accidentally,” she says with a chuckle.
Originally it was going to be one concert organized to celebrate Finland’s Independence Day. But the concert was a hit; and it was popular enough that when it came time to raise funds for the group, it was done so privately. It’s rare to have a patron-funded orchestra in Estonia, where most groups are state-funded.
Kadri Tali manages the business side of the group, while Anu Tali manages the musical side. Tali will continue her work with the NSO throughout her duration with Sarasota Orchestra. She might invite a few Sarasota Orchestra musicians to join her when the top musicians from around the world meet.
“I had wicked ideas when I was there,” she says with a laugh. “But I had to behave, since talks about being the orchestra’s director had happened. I didn’t want to steal all the best musicians right away ... ”
And her sister is already planning to come visit Sarasota — they don’t typically go for more than a month-and-a-half without seeing each other.
“They (her parents) could tell us to read books and take us out, but we had the most fun with each other,” Tali says. “My mother was afraid we’d never be interested in other things.”
So to fix this isolation, Tali’s mother gave the twins a piano when they were 6-years-old — this was when Estonia was under Soviet occupation. Music clicked for them. The sisters attended specialized music schools starting as pre-teens.
“I realized there were more people like me,” she says. “I was a normal child, but with extra musical interest.”
She says that Soviet Estonia was always a little different, but that it was interesting to know the cultures around her and to learn to speak their languages.
She lived 80 kilometers from Finland, close enough to pick up one Finnish channel the Soviets had no way to prohibit the Estonians from watching. She says she also benefited greatly from the Russian culture — she loves Tchaikovsky. And the occupation helped make her fluent in six languages.
During the occupation, Estonians could take part in cultural exchanges, and German and Finnish choirs could come visit. Tali made a Finnish best friend, to whom she would wave goodbye at the ports. But there was a rope Tali couldn’t go past.
“My best friend started crying because it was so unfair that there was a rope I couldn’t step over, just because I was me and I was born in the wrong country,” she says. “I don’t want to be behind the rope ever again.”
The occupation had a profound effect on Tali, and it’s apparent in how she performs musically.
“I think everybody in Sarasota noticed it when I performed Overture No. 2,” she says. “It’s this held-back energy or scared feelings.” The occupation gave her a depth of emotion and empathy.
“That’s partly why Estonians are good conductors,” she says. “We’re resilient and patient.”
And Sarasota will have to take a lesson in Estonian patience. She’ll conduct two Masterworks programs in the upcoming season, but her first full season won’t take place until 2014-2015.
“I’m really excited, happy and I’m not nervous at all,” she says. “That’s surprising because I’m actually a very cautious person — I like to be sure.”
Five things that inspire Anu Tali:
1. People — My sister is even better than me at that. I partly love music because it has people in it. I get a lot of energy and ideas from them. That’s why my instrument is human beings.
2. Nature — If you look up Estonia, you look up a lot of nature and not so much people (you have a population of only around 1.4 million). You get lost in the forest here; there’s lots of wild forest and moss that no one has stepped a foot on. I have total respect and I can be endless there — I can get lost for a whole summer season on the island. And it calms me down.
3. Languages — I speak Estonian, Russian, Finnish, Swedish, German and English. I love listening to people speaking their mother tongue. If you doubt what you mean when they say it in their mother tongue, even when you don’t speak the language, you get their subconscious meaning.
4. Human voice and singing — I work a lot with sounds. In every orchestra, in every country you can perform a lot with sound with warmness or richness.
5. History — I think you have to know where you’re going. I think you have to know why things are and when things are … in the right place — you have to know the context. The most interesting thing is to make yourself small and learn the local way — so I’m a fan of traditions and history of places.