Finland, Music and Equity

Over the last months we have given considerable  attention to trying to learn from Finland’s outstanding accomplishments over the last decades in creating   from a very poor base one of the world’s highest performing  school systems, building on a foundation which puts the concept of equity at the vital core of their policy and performance.  And over the last several decades, the country has likewise undergone an enormous transition to become a leading country as well in the field of classical music, transforming it from “a moribund luxury into a vital part of everyday life.”  Let’s have a look at this short article on  “Finland’s Classical Crescendo” and see if there are any lessons to be gleaned for our work in the mobility sector.

Finland’s Classical Crescendo

As Helsinki’s New Concert Hall Starts Its Second Season, the Nation’s Musical Culture Thrives

By J.S. MARCUS , Wall Street Journal, 6 Sept. 2012 Full text with photos and comments at

Finland can lay claim to being the musical superpower of the Nordic countries. The most important orchestras in Sweden and Norway now have Finnish conductors. Jean Sibelius, Finland’s national composer, has a renewed pan-Scandinavian appeal, and contemporary Finnish composers are some of the most sought-after in the world. But until last year, Helsinki, the center of Finnish musical life, lacked an acoustically viable concert hall.

“What I really appreciate about Finnish audiences is their curiosity…. They want to take things in.” Opera singer Karita Mattila

That all changed in late August 2011, when the city inaugurated the new Helsinki Music Center, home to both the Helsinki Philharmonic, the Nordic countries’ oldest permanent orchestra, and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, known for premiering new works by Finnish composers. Outfitted with an acoustic system designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, responsible for the sound at Los Angeles’s acclaimed Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Music Center is a popular success, regularly selling out concerts of all kinds.

The new Music Center is just the shiny tip of a large iceberg. Buoyed by a rising generation of conducting stars and soloists, and a thriving musical culture that extends into the provinces, Finland is settling into a new golden age for classical music, turning what other countries often regard as a moribund luxury into a vital part of everyday life.

Helsinki begins its new classical music season in earnest this week, and many of the city’s leading musical personalities see the Music Center’s second year as its real first season, with orchestras regarding the first year as a necessary period of adjustment. “As expected, it took about one year to get used to being there,” says John Storgårds, the 48-year-old chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, about the new facilities. “The first year was a development process.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Storgårds will help bring in the new season with Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, part of the orchestra’s first Brahms cycle in its new home. “I specifically wanted to do it the second year, not the first,” he says of the four Brahms symphonies, which are at the very center of the orchestral repertory.

The Music Center’s predecessor, Finlandia Hall, is “a beautiful building and an important national monument,” says the conductor Hannu Lintu, but it was also a notorious acoustic dead zone. Designed by Finnish master Alvar Aalto, the white-marble 1971 building was “really dry,” says Mr. Lintu, who is scheduled to take over as chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra next year. It “didn’t focus the music from the stage to audience,” he says. “It was almost impossible to produce anything, because the hall didn’t support you.”

Mr. Lintu, the 44-year-old shooting star of the Finnish conducting scene, will act as principal guest conductor of the Radio Symphony this year. The orchestra’s new season at the Music Center begins tonight, with Mr. Lintu conducting works by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and 47-year-old Finnish composer Veli-Matti Puumala.

Mr. Lintu says the Music Center’s new main hall, which seats 1,704, is like “an X-ray machine—you can hear everything.” With its intimate, amphitheater-like setting, the main hall has also created a new sense of community, he says.

“We Finns are not very good at communicating,” he says, invoking a cliché that many Finns will also admit is true. “We are shy, and we are quiet.” Now, he says, the main hall allows people ” to see each other’s reactions.” The audience, he says, “can experience the music together.”

This year, the €190 million Music Center will also inaugurate its new house choir, which the two orchestras will share. On Sept. 21, the Radio Symphony and the Music Center Choir will perform Brahms’s “A German Requiem,” conducted by the orchestra’s former chief conductor, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, now chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic.

Messrs. Storgårds, Lintu, and Saraste are just three of several Finnish conductors with international standing. Others include Esa-Pekka Salonen, principal conductor of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra; Sakari Oramo, chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra; and Osmo Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, a new critical darling among American ensembles.

Mr. Vänskä says that Finnish conductors enjoy such high standing these days because “it is our tradition to be practical.” Mr. Vänskä says he is “one of the musicians,” not an authoritarian figure, as conductors are often regarded in Central European orchestras.

Mr. Vänskä is known for his now legendary recordings of the seven Sibelius symphonies with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, part of a massive project by the Swedish BIS label, which culminated last year, to record the composer’s complete works.

An hour away from Helsinki, the smaller city of Lahti has its own vibrant musical life, centered around its decade-old concert venue, Sibelius Hall, known for a highly adjustable acoustic system that many regard as one of the world’s best. When the Lahti ensemble played the new Helsinki venue for the first time last fall, the city sent 19 busloads of music lovers to the capital—”as fans do in ice hockey,” says Lahti’s new chief conductor, Okko Kamu.

A central fact of Finnish musical life is audience openness to new and difficult works of music by contemporary composers. The best known is Magnus Lindberg, 54, a recent composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic. His works are marked by innovation, like his 1980s piece, “Kraft,” which converts junkyard refuse into musical instruments. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who is himself a composer, attributes Finnish musical sophistication to the country’s much-lauded educational system, which fosters musical talent but has also helped create a new generation of eager audiences. “This small nation has been able to reach its full potential,” he says.

“What I really appreciate about Finnish audiences,” says Finland’s superstar opera singer, Karita Mattila, “is their curiosity.” She says Finns “really concentrate” on unknown pieces. “They want to take things in—they may later decide that they don’t like something, but they take it in.”

The banner event of the new season so far is Ms. Mattila’s appearance this month at Helsinki’s Finnish National Opera, where the soprano stars in Janáček’s “The Makropulos Case.”

Finnish interest in contemporary classical music, says young violinist Pekka Kuusisto, also has much to do with the legacy of Sibelius, who proved that “music from this tiny country can have international significance.” Composers like Mr. Lindberg knew “before they started that they could make it.”

For decades, government support for classical music has been broad and deep. In a country of 5.5 million people, there are some 15 symphony orchestras, dozens of working composers, and surprisingly low ticket prices. The top ticket for both of Helsinki’s ensembles is often less than €30, and low prices mean diversity among concertgoers. “We have young audiences,” says Ms. Mattila.

Finlandia Hall is still standing, as gorgeous as ever, a few minutes’ walk from the new Music Center. Its new life as a conference center and popular-music venue does lead to some bittersweet reflections from former audiences, young and old.

“Everybody grew up going to concerts at Finlandia Hall,” says 35-year-old Pekka Kuusisto. “Everything was so beautiful—except for the way it sounded.”


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