Opening address at the 40th National Orchestra Conference of the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras

Kalevi Aho, 18.3.2005


Mr Kalevi Aho, Composer and Chairman of the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras

Forty years have passed this year since the founding of the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras. The year 1965 did not, of course, mark the birth of the Finnish orchestra, since we usually date the start of regular orchestral activities from the founding of the Turku Music Society 215 years ago, in 1790; and even before that, the city had had its own Academic Kapelle.

The people of Helsinki were able to enjoy regular orchestral concerts from 1882 onwards. This was the year in which Robert Kajanus founded the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the first professional orchestra in the Nordic countries. By the beginning of the 20th century orchestral associations and city orchestras were springing up all over the country, and the time and need thus arose for an umbrella organisation to lobby on their behalf. The Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras was officially born here in Lahti 40 years ago – a significant landmark in the recent history of our orchestras.

Over the past 40 years our orchestras have seen some sweeping changes. In 1965 the Association was founded by 18 orchestras. No musician or audience statistics were kept until the 1971-72 season, when Finnish orchestras had 438 professional players in all and their 1,111 concerts attracted a total audience of 452,676.

By 2004 the Association already had 29 member orchestras employing 970 full-time professional musicians. In other words, the number of musicians has more than doubled since 1972. The other staff employed by orchestras, in administration and as road and stage managers, numbered 120 in all last year, making a grand total of 1,090 persons in the service of Finnish orchestras. The indirect employment effect is much greater even, since many freelancers are also hired as extras for concerts, orchestras provide performing opportunities for soloists, conductors and choirs, and composers are kept busy on commissions from orchestras.

In 2004, the Finnish orchestras gave 1,705 concerts that were attended by a total audience of 951,222 – a slight increase on 2003. Comparing these figures with those for 1972, the first year in which statistics were kept, we can see a tremendous upswing in both the number of concerts on offer and the number of people attending them.

Meanwhile, the general rise in the standard of our orchestras has been equally immense. This has all been noted abroad. Countries such as Germany, Austria, the UK, the United States and Japan are beginning to look upon Finland as a veritable orchestral Mecca. The news of our orchestral culture has been spread above all by the orchestras themselves with their brilliantly successful foreign tours and first-class discs. Only just recently, in January, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra had superlatives showered upon it during its tour of the United States, and the Radio Symphony Orchestra reaped honour and glory at the Canaries Festival.

It has also been noted abroad that our orchestras play a wealth of contemporary Finnish music at their concerts. It has thus been easier for Finnish composers than for their foreign colleagues to gain practice and skill in the handling of this infinitely rich and versatile line-up. The programmes for Finnish orchestral concerts last year featured no fewer than 92 premieres, of which 20 were by non-Finnish composers. Although the number does include some little pieces and light music, well over half were ambitious, large-scale works. Contemporary Finnish composers really should have no need for complaint in this respect.

It was interesting to take a look and see which composers got the most performances in Finland in 2004. As expected, Sibelius stood way above all others in the statistics. Last year, works by Sibelius were heard 210 times at concerts by Finnish orchestras. Next in the art music genre came Einojuhani Rautavaara with 30, and Pehr Henrik Nordgren with 25. Following close on the heels of Nordgren were Uuno Klami and Kaija Saariaho with 23, Aulis Sallinen with 17, and Leevi Madetoja with 15.

Sibelius occupied an even more dominant position in the repertoire performed by Finnish orchestras on their foreign tours. It is rare for a Finnish orchestra NOT to play some Sibelius on a foreign tour, and the big orchestras almost always chose a Sibelius symphony as the main item in their touring repertoire. This, too, has been noticed abroad, and not always in an entirely positive sense. I myself have on several occasions found myself having to justify to foreign reporters why the tour repertoire of Finnish orchestras so often adheres to the well-tried, Sibelius-oriented scheme.

Luckily, our orchestras have nevertheless also made sure that more recent, large-scale Finnish orchestral music gets a hearing. Eighteen months ago the English music journalist Norman Lebrecht wrote a column entitled The Lost Art comparing Finnish and English symphonic literature. As he saw it, the symphonic tradition flourishes in Finland, whereas it is nowadays on its last gasp in England. He regards this as a disgrace to English music.

Although the situation today looks good for our orchestras, there are more than enough challenges and targets for the future. Heading the list is, to my mind, to complete the ongoing development of the Finnish orchestra within the next two decades. Because in many towns in Finland, the development of the municipal orchestra has come to a halt half way. The town has established an orchestra and begun to expand it according to a set plan, but then it has exasperatingly abandoned the orchestra before it reaches full size. This causes major problems in practice. To start with, it is virtually impossible to find decent authentic repertoire for this diminutive band. In order to perform items from the staple orchestral repertoire in anything approaching the way intended by the composer, the orchestra has to hire a host of extras. This in turn is very expensive, and the orchestra is in constant danger of overstepping its budget.

This does not, of course, mean that all the Finnish orchestras should be brought up to full symphony orchestra strength. The ideal size will depend above all on the size of the town and the orchestra’s audience base. The shortage of players hits precisely the smaller orchestras of sinfonietta and chamber type.

The only Finnish sinfonietta line-up to have reached its target is the 41-player Tapiola Sinfonietta. All the others, especially the Pori and Lappeenranta orchestras, but also the Joensuu and Vaasa and the Kymi Sinfonietta, are in some way understaffed.

The ideal would, of course, be for Vaasa, Joensuu, Pori, Kotka/Kouvola and, after the establishment of the Saimaa Sinfonietta, Lappeenranta/Imatra to possess a sinfonietta orchestra of about 40 players. Meanwhile, the Chamber Orchestra of Lapland would have achieved its goal of 21 musicians and the people of Mikkeli could hear excellent string playing by a band of at least 15 musicians. Jyväskylä would have become a medium-sized orchestra of 60 or more players, Turku would boast 80-90 and Lahti a few less.

The failure of the state aid to keep up with the obligations of the Theatre and Orchestra Act has placed major economic problems in the way of those orchestras that have increased their size. The present 83 person-year deficit in the state aid to orchestras should be rectified immediately while raising the price of one person-year to the relative level it was when the Theatre and Orchestra came into force in 1992. This would help orchestras to balance their budgets. Luckily, we can already see lots of light at the end of the tunnel in this respect, since orchestras will be getting eight more person-years in the present year and the Ministry of Education has promised a similar trend in the years to come.

Completely new sources of orchestral funding could be the Regional Councils. In my personal utopia I can already see, say, the Regional Council of Lapland beginning to fund tours by the Chamber Orchestra of Lapland to municipalities within the region and assuming the financial responsibility for a few new posts in the orchestra. The Regional Council of Kymenlaakso has, again in my utopia, taken similar steps to develop the Kymi Sinfonietta. Nearby towns are engaging in closer collaboration. Rauma has begun to supply funds for the Pori Sinfonietta on condition that some of its concerts are repeated in Rauma. Similarly, Imatra has at last agreed to form a partnership with Lappeenranta and the right-sized Saimaa Sinfonietta is up and running and giving regular concerts out in the province.

The main threat to the development of the Finnish symphony orchestra is that orchestras and other cultural institutions are beginning to be regarded primarily as economic units and treated as business undertakings. Such buzz-words as spin-off, outsourcing, tendering, sponsoring and self-financing are being bandied about and increasingly being demanded of cultural institutions. It has, for example, been proposed that the funding of cultural institutions maintained by the municipality, especially orchestras and theatres, should rely far more than at present on self-funding. The argument is: if light music can manage on its own, then why can’t serious music?

In demanding this, people tend to forget that it is very much easier for a pop group to fund itself than it is for a symphony orchestra with dozens of players. The light music ensemble is as a rule small and thus administratively light. If it plays in a big concert hall, the ticket revenue per musician may, if the concert sells well, be considerable, and the band will not make a loss even if the tickets do not sell very well. Purely commercial pop does not deserve to be subsided out of public funds, and if it cannot manage without, then it is a failure.

The case for orchestras is completely different. The only country in the world where orchestras have to find all their own funds is the United States. Even there, this is only possible in the big cities with enough people rolling in money. Yet even in the United States, many orchestras have found themselves in financial straits and a few have been forced to disband.

Sponsorship can be used as a means of financing special one-off projects such as recordings or guest appearances, but arts institutions cannot rely on it for their basic operations. I could mention, as a warning, the example of the Norrköping Orchestra in Sweden that expanded with generous sponsorship from Ericsson. Ericsson has now withdrawn its sponsorship and the orchestra has had to send numerous musicians packing in order to make ends meet.

Finnish culture can consider itself extremely lucky that society has felt obliged to make the very best and finest Western culture accessible to all regardless of financial standing and place of residence, orchestral music and opera included. And we would not be talking of the contemporary Finnish music boom and its outstanding international reputation were the Finnish orchestras not able to take risks in planning their repertoire and to regularly place new, unfamiliar works in their programmes.

Other threats include the commoditisation of culture. In Rovaniemi, for example, the orchestra can no longer plan concert series in the way it used to. Instead, it will in future have to devise product packages which the town may, if it wishes, then purchase. A similar system is being planned in Tampere and Mikkeli. The packages offered by orchestras may be, say, conventional orchestral, chamber, children’s, light or regional concerts.

The decision on what cultural products to buy will be made by a committee set up specially for the purpose, after comparing the offers made by various cultural and recreational actors in the town.

The big danger here is that a committee with no knowledge of the subject may acquire artistic authority over the heads of the arts institutions. If, say, some members of the committee have no real contact with orchestral music, the committee may decide to buy the town a new sports competition instead of a few orchestral concerts, possibly giving bigger spectator figures as its reason. Or the committee may come to the conclusion that it would rather the town had concerts of light music than orchestral concerts of music by composers not previously familiar to audiences. Another danger is if the town has amateur ensembles and the committee decides to buy their products rather than those of the professional orchestra because the amateurs’ offers cost less. Or if the orchestra from a neighbouring town makes a bargain offer, the committee may start buying its packages rather than those of its own orchestra.

In time, it may prove almost impossible for the orchestra to engage in long-term planning. The whole idea of commoditisation needs to be shot down at once, because it is in my opinion a singularly idiotic principle on which to operate cultural policy and one that should not by any means be applied to arts institutions. If the orchestra is commoditised, the result will almost inevitably be a dumbing down of its repertoire. And the lack of sustained artistic planning may lead to a gradual drop in standards.

The Finnish orchestras and the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras thus have plenty of tasks and challenges to keep them busy for the next 40 years. Right now, the situation as a whole nevertheless looks optimistic, and the politicians in many of our towns are aware that it pays to allocate taxes to their orchestras. Naturally, the performance of music constitutes the core of these orchestras’ work. And orchestral music is one of the greatest and most everlasting achievements of all Western culture. It should be made accessible to all, regardless of social and financial status.

With these words I declare the 40th National Orchestra Conference in Lahti open.

Translation: Susan Sinisalo