The Gramophone blog

Odd but inspired – Finland's classical music scene continues to astonish

Andrew MellorThu 4th September 2014

History was made in Helsinki on Monday, but remarkable things happened on Friday, Sunday and Tuesday too

Last Friday – typically early, the Finns always seem to hedge their bets on the rapid evaporation of summer even though this was their hottest for decades – the Finnish National Opera opened its new season. Susanna Mälkki was in the pit at the white-tiled opera house that overlooks Töölönlahti Bay in Helsinki, conducting a production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro that was, incidentally, also directed by a woman and programmed by a female Intendant under a female General Director who reports to a female Chair. Perhaps the most comment-worthy element of that fact was that nobody in Helsinki thought it worthy of any comment at all. This is Finland; that’s how they roll.

There was some talk of ‘history’, though, the following Monday. That morning a rather bureaucratic communiqué from Helsinki City Council indicated that a motion at the evening meeting could approve Mälkki as the new chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, taking over from John Storgårds in 2016. That was little more than a formality: by late afternoon the orchestra founded by Jean Sibelius’s chum Robert Kajanus in 1882 had confirmed that Mälkki would be its next incumbent – the first time a woman has held that or any such post at a European capital’s flagship orchestra.

Mälkki wasn’t the only female conductor in town at the weekend. On Sunday, after the whole of Helsinki (me included) jumped on boats and sailed out to one of the thousands of empty islands to eke out the last of the invigorating summer sun, Dalia Stasevska conducted Barber’s Adagio for Strings at the Helsinki Music Centre. There were others on the bill at this one-off ‘playing for peace’ concert, too: Barbara Hendricks, Lisa Batiashvili, Pekka Kuusisto, Kimmo Pohjonen, Gil Shaked Agababa, Minna Pensola, Leif Segerstam, Santtu-Matias Rouvali, Eri Klas, the Helsinki Chamber Choir and more.

Quite an array. But centre stage was the ‘We Agree to Disagree Orchestra’, a large ensemble of ‘disagreeing’ musicians from throughout Finland assembled by the violinist Jan Söderblom as a reaction to ‘the huge shared challenges’ of erupting world conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. Looming large throughout the five-hour marathon show carried live by Finnish state broadcaster YLE was that eternally resonant orchestral metaphor: for now, if Brahms’s Tragic Overture or Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture are to come off, we have to supress our own egos and opinions and play together, as one. Whatever the tangible results of a protest concert like this in peaceful, contented, educated Finland, there were copious reminders of small, everyday wisdoms littered through its heartfelt performances.

There were also some unforgettable moments: Barbara Hendricks dredging-up extreme emotions in Dido’s Lament and in her recitation of the first article of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights; Lisa Batiashvili’s close-to-home insistence that ‘it is not right to suppress people who are fighting for their freedom’ before performances of music from her native Georgia. The sight of Leif Segerstam bounding towards political giant Pekka Haavisto with his arms outstretched, on the brink of a bear-hug (it didn’t come off), will remain with me for some time. And just when I never thought I’d have the chance to be in the same room as former lightweight boxing champion and all-round legend Eri Klas while he conducted an orchestra, I was proved wrong.

Straight after the septuagenarian Klas came the 29-year-old Santtu-Matias Rouvali, a conductor of whom I’ve been hearing interesting things for years but never had the chance to see live. As the concert entered its fourth hour, it was as if the organisers had kept this boundless ball of big-haired energy up their sleeve to give us all a shot in the arm. On he strode, kicking the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story into action with the sort of good-natured disrespect Bernstein would have loved.

Like Bernstein, Rouvali is having a broadening effect on orchestral music-making in his home country. On Tuesday, the day after the Mälkki announcement, an interesting YLE news story dropped on to the Twittersphere. Rouvali’s orchestra in Tampere, Finland’s second city, was being forced to admit that a good number of concerts in its coming season were close to selling out (this in the largest-capacity concert hall in the country); pre-season subscriptions sales had already soared to above 20% yielded last season, and fans were being urged to book now to avoid disappointment. The problem? Too many young people, new to orchestral concerts, are snapping up tickets for Rouvali’s performances.

In Helsinki, it’s Finns who take the helm of the two symphony orchestras (only one non-Finn has held the chief conductorship at either) and the standout talents in each generation tend to get a crack at the Helsinki Philharmonic or Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra whip. There’s every reason to believe that Rouvali will follow his Tampere predecessors John Storgårds and Hannu Lintu into one of those jobs, and it seems right that Mälkki’s time has come. She is an unusually fascinating and uncompromising conductor and is blessed with a razor-sharp mind, even if she wasn’t exactly faultless in Friday’s Figaro – struggling too often to sync pit with stage despite her hard-driven, machined-out tempos.

Still, you can always rely on tiny Finland to raise the bar somehow, and on this occasion it was with a striking crop of young singers who are following the remarkable legacy of the country’s ‘golden generation’ – the likes of Karita Mattila, Soile Isokoski and Lilli Paasikivi (who now runs the company). People have been talking about Mari Palo (the Countess) for years, but Hanna Rantala has come almost from nowhere – she was picked up by the Finnish National Opera having performed in fringe events organised by Sibelius Academy students – to sing a Susanna full of detail and colour. Still only one singer stole the show: Turkish-Finnish mezzo Melis Jaatinen, whose Cherubino was gorgeously sung and superlatively characterised in my experience (how on earth did she nail that female-playing-a-male-playing-a-female?) and this is the one opera I’ve seen more than any others.

I got the feeling I’d seen her somewhere before, and I had: it was in the YouTube video the Finnish National Opera made in 2009 to invite the country’s then Minister for Arts, the rap-loving Paavo Arhinmäki, to come along to a show. Jaatinen is the one in the white ice-hockey shirt rapping just after Matti Salminen, next to Lilli Paasikivi, and later with Leif Segerstam. Yes, you read that right. Welcome to Finland.

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