Helsinki’s Musiikkitalo – six months on

Andrew MellorMon 5th March 2012
Downstairs in the Musiikkitalo's glass-walled foyerDownstairs in the Musiikkitalo's glass-walled foyer

In the cold, dim light of a winter’s day, does Helsinki’s hall still stack up?

Six months ago today the international press were out in force for the ribbon-cutting concert at Helsinki’s new music complex. After a whirlwind of tours and briefings, and a champagne-fuelled opening shindig carried live on Finnish television, we arrived at something of a consensus: the Musiikkitalo is a winner. Given how long Finns had waited for a concert hall worthy of their outstanding musical life, it was all quite moving – as witness the blog I posted on this site the very next day.

Such events, however, are always a compromise. ‘Come back and hear one of our standard season concerts,’ the Helsinki Philharmonic’s boss said to me shortly afterwards. On Thursday night I did. The orchestra took to the Musiikkitalo stage for Nielsen’s Inextinguishable Symphony, Madetoja’s tone-poem Kullervo and Kalevi Aho’s Contrabassoon Concerto – all under Ylikapellimestari (chief conductor to you and me) John Storgårds.

A good 20 yards away from my position at the opening concert – a little more central but a few rows further back – I was stuck immediately by the same quite particular acoustic properties. You hear almost everything and yet rarely does the music feel burnished or overly loud. There’s so much ‘space’ around the sound. Detail is the chief beneficiary of this translucence. In Storgårds’s very classical Nielsen, the counterpoints were well defined without compromising the all-important thrust – such a peculiar but vital balance in this composer.

There’s still a slight issue with low brass. I struggled to hear the trombones in August and couldn’t get a definitive handle on them this time either. That might be interpretation: Storgårds told me afterwards that reining in the HPO brass was a necessity after leaving Finlandia Hall, where they had to blow hard to be heard at all. I have to add – rolling in the caveat of generous rehearsal time and these very conducive acoustics – that the Helsinki Philharmonic gave performances on a level of ensemble elegance, tonal finesse and ‘listening’ musicality which I’ve not heard achieved by any London orchestra. 

We weren’t hoodwinked on the acoustic then. But what of an ordinary concert night at the Musiikkitalo? Thursday’s programme was a straight repeat from Wednesday’s and the hall was nearly full – perhaps a hundred or so unoccupied seats behind the orchestra. Concerts are routinely busy here and there are lots of them – the Vienna Philharmonic sold out the whole of the last weekend (despite bringing coals to Newcastle with all-Sibelius programmes and having to draft Sakari Oramo onto the podium at the last minute), and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra is next up this weekend, with numerous Sibelius Academy performances strewn throughout most weeks during term-time.

What I hadn’t considered at that opening concert was the austerity of the main auditorium’s black/brown colour scheme. Away from the glitz of the festivities and bright TV lights, the room is dark and defiantly masculine. I wonder if lighting could be used to better effect to help create some more atmosphere in here – more intimacy and romance, for want of better words, that would complement architect Marko Kivistö’s beautiful ‘log-jam’ angles.

A touch more atmosphere is needed inside precisely because the glass-walled foyers outside are so brilliant and charged – alive with youth, vibrancy and unpretentiousness. The architects promised that would happen and that it wouldn’t be confined to the evening. On that they have delivered. The foyer café where I write this is buzzing with students and musicians (soprano Anu Komsi, Sakari Oramo’s wife, is enjoying a coffee two tables away) and tourists Finnish and international are meandering around craning their necks at the entertaining angles. 

Six months is evidently a long time in concert-hall politics. Since that opening concert, both the Musiikkitalo’s directors have resigned. Tensions existed between Helena Hiilivirta and Kenneth Katter, but it seems to have been the decision last autumn to switch to a ‘service-based operating model’ that opened the can of worms which became a firestorm in November. Put simply, it was decided that the Musiikkitalo would no longer in itself be a creative force; programming would be left to its resident ensembles and ‘hiring’ visiting promoters.

Unfortunately for a building constantly alive with architectural and human creativity, you feel the ‘corporate’ governance a little too harshly the moment you enter the Musiikkitalo on a concert night. The front-of-house areas are manned by inanely uniformed staff from Group 4 (the security outfit responsible for ensuring your comfort and safety should you find yourself undergoing a residential experience at any number of UK prisons). Why can’t tickets be torn by enthusiastic Sibelius Academy students – or any other students, for that matter – as at Symphony Hall or The Bridgewater Hall?

The toilets are causing some problems, too, with large queues forming at those at stalls-level to the left of the cloakroom desks in the interval when there are alternative toilet facilities available nearby. But that is assuredly a niggle. I sensed the special nature of the Musiikkitalo in the August sunshine and have only had it confirmed in the whiteness of winter. It is the most perfect marriage of Nordic architectural and musical values I have seen – a compelling building to experience performances in and an inspiring one to spend time in. And despite teething problems it is already proving a brilliant resource for the city and its populace, musical or otherwise. It’s impossible not to envy them.    

Andrew Mellor

Andrew Mellor is Reviews Editor at Gramophone magazine and writes widely for orchestras, opera companies, periodicals and websites in the UK and Scandinavia.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014