A big ship turns slowly - are the Finnish Orchestras on a safe course?

Antti Häyrynen, 10.1.2005

The symphony orchestra is one of the propellers of Western music. The sustained public funding of the Finnish orchestras carries a cultural-political message: art is for all to enjoy. But how to hold a steady course and avoid getting stuck in the doldrums?

The Finns are quite justifiably proud of their unique orchestral culture, boasting more orchestras per capita than any other nation in the world. The Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras has 29 members, and that does not include a host of others operating on a less regular basis.

The Finnish orchestras also pull in a good audience: the total figure for some years now has been around a million bums on seats per year, which is not bad for a country with a population of just over five million.

Still more important, however, is the fact that the orchestras are firmly rooted in the community. Added to this, the social distribution is more even than in many other Western European countries.

The same applies to the geographical distribution, for the orchestral network stretches to every corner of this sparsely-populated country. This brings us to the core belief of Nordic cultural policy, that art is for all to enjoy and must therefore be accessible to all.

National project

The birth of the Finnish orchestra coincided with the period of national awakening in the late 19th century. Both the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and the Helsinki Music Institute (predecessor of the Sibelius Academy) were founded in 1882. One of the Institute’s earliest students was the young Jean Sibelius, who first made a name for himself with his Kullervo symphony in 1891.

Ever since then, our orchestras have been closely linked with Finnish orchestral music. It could almost be said that they were founded in order to perform this, and especially that of Sibelius. The hegemony of Sibelius is still reflected in the statistics for 2002: of the more than 400 Finnish works performed by Finnish orchestras, more than 100 were by him.

There was, however, another factor at work in the emerging national culture. Finland had been part of the Russian Empire since 1809, following six hundred years of rule by Sweden. Now, at last, it had realistic visions of breaking free; it thus needed an organised culture in order to defend its place among the nations of Europe and to justify its striving for independence. For a nation speaking a language – Finnish - familiar to few, music was possibly the most effective means of attracting universal attention, with the result that the symphony was rated higher than any other genre of classical music in the closing decades of the 19th century.

Abstract thought along symphonic lines came naturally to Sibelius, and through him, the symphony became the dominant means of expression for Finnish composers. Over the next century, more than 400 symphonies would be composed in Finland, drawing sustenance from the budding network of orchestras. The orchestra was thus from the very beginning one of the fundamental elements contributing to the national identity.

From the trough to the crest of the wave

The birth of the Finnish orchestras was not altogether an easy one, however. Some were founded by private or collective initiative, and help from the local and, especially, the national authorities was slow to materialise.

The first wave came in the early 20th century, but many plans were soon becalmed by the upheavals of the First World War. Not until after the Second World War did the various orchestral societies and patrons’ associations truly recover. The next wave of spontaneous popular movements and petitions arrived in the early 1990s, when many orchestras faced the threat of disbanding.

Between the late 1950s and late 1970s, many established orchestras funded by patrons’ associations were taken over by local authorities and thus became professional institutions maintained out of public funds. Their development was furthered by the basic and vocational education in music provided under an Act passed in 1969. At the beginning of the 20th century, most of the musicians were from Germany or the Baltic states, but by the latter half of the century the rapid rise in demand could be met with local players.

It soon became obvious as the recession deepened in the early 1990s that this prosperous voyage could not last for ever. In 1993 an Act was passed on state subsidies for orchestras that brought a ten-fold increase in the statutory funding. Until then, state subsidies had covered less than five per cent of orchestras’ expenditure. In practice their resources did not, however, grow, because the municipalities cut their spending by roughly the same amount in 1991-93.

Variety of success stories

Expansion is, it appears, a thing of the past for the Finnish orchestras. Finland is unlikely to gain any new, full-time professional orchestras, and no dramatic rise can be expected in the number of players in the existing ones. Instead of quantity, the focus is now on quality and content.

There are three full-sized orchestras of over 90 players in Finland: the Helsinki Philharmonic, the Radio Symphony and the Tampere Philharmonic. The biggest is naturally the orchestra of the Finnish National Opera, which works in several shifts. Not far behind in size are the Turku Philharmonic and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

By international standards at least, the most obvious Finnish success story in recent years has been the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. Its recordings of Sibelius under Osmo Vänskä have won widespread acclaim and awards. The LSO has entered into a working partnership with the BIS recording company of Robert von Bahr that has brought considerable publicity. This alliance has also inpsired a performing culture that is a rare combination of close adherence to the score and total immersion in the work on hand.

Another factor contributing to the success of the LSO has been the unusually strong commitment of its host city, Lahti, of under 100,000 inhabitants. With its new home (the Sibelius Hall) built entirely of wood, the orchestra has become an icon for Lahti and a symbolic engine for the development of various business sectors. This may explain why it has been exceptionally active in collecting sponsorship. Its busy concert and recording schedule also speaks of business-like attitude.

The rise of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra to the international elite in the space of fifteen years is possibly the most spectacular Finnish success story, but it is not the only one. The Helsinki Philharmonic has undoubtedly been given a helping hand in its second coming by its recordings of music by Einojuhani Rautavaara and others for Ondine, but maybe more significant have been its various education projects and its novel involvement in the community.

The most eye-catching of the HPO projects has been the invitation to 4,700 children born in Helsinki in 2000 (the year of the city’s 450th anniversary) to be its ‘godchildren’. Open-air events in the Helsinki region and projects taking music outside the concert hall have further served to draw orchestra and audience closer together. The established, ‘authoritarian’ tradition may distance an orchestra from the punters, but the HPO has managed to turn tradition into a user-friendly asset.

Audience loyalty is likewise the outcome of sustained education efforts by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Juha Kangas ever since he founded it in 1972. Most of the players come from the nearby region famous for its folk music traditions. The orchestra has drawn on these to create a distinctive style of playing that is strict yet sensitive.

One of the strengths of this Kokkola-based orchestra has been its artistic focus; it has succeeded in courting a following by refusing to compromise and play to the gallery. This artistic policy embraces such Baltic and Finnish composers as Pehr Henrik Nordgren, Peteris Vasks and Kalevi Aho, but above all it reflects an inherent feature of Finnish music-making: an earnest search for the truth.

The Avanti! Chamber Orchestra was the brainchild of conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste, both young at the time (1983), and was designed to perform contemporary music not touched by the existing orchestras. It became a success, and in the process so did the music of Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jouni Kaipainen.

Many new musical aspirations and trends have been found their way to Finland via Avanti!, which has trained musicians, composers and concert organisers to move with the times. Nor should its significance to contemporary Finnish music be underestimated: engraved on the map of the late 20th century are swathes of inspired, virtuoso, broad-minded music all bearing the Avanti! hallmark.

Avanti! has been one of the leading exporters of Finnish music, sometimes giving more concerts abroad than at home in the concert season. This is usually counterbalanced by a festival called Summer Sounds in the charming little town of Porvoo.

Another name that must be added to the list of success stories is that of the Radio Symphony Orchestra, which took the lead in the 1980s, especially in contemporary repertoire. Thus it is important to note that the need to specialise and diversify is just as great in a small country as it is in a big one.

Public institutions

There is no getting away from the fact that Finnish orchestral culture is markedly institutionalised. Until very recently, orchestras and ensembles were founded spontaneously but soon sought public funding and thus had to submit to public control. The Act of 1993 on state subsidies strengthened the status of the municipal orchestras even further.

A similar Act on theatres in Finland provoked widespread debate on the fate of independent drama groups, but no such concern has been expressed about orchestras. The few independent ensembles that have been formed have not, unlike the drama groups, campaigned collectively to improve their status. Among the most active have been the independent opera and dance companies that have had a deep furrow to plough in the shadow of the Finnish National Opera and a few other establishments enjoying full-time funding.

On the other hand, the Finnish orchestras have readily shouldered assignments that would, elsewhere in the world, be taken on by independent groups. Contemporary music, children’s concerts, workshops and interactive events have relatively quickly found their way into the orchestral schedule.

Contemporary music has, however, clearly suffered most of all. The orchestras do not systematically work through the modern classics, concentrating instead on bagging premieres and confining themselves to a relatively small and exclusively Finnish band of composers. The new works on the programme tend to be ‘car-parking’ overtures and concertos.

From challenger to institution

Finnish composers are, of course, well aware of the standard line-ups at their disposal and do not write scores that will necessitate the hiring of too many extras. The youngest generation has attempted to break out of this mould by calling in such ensembles as Zagros and Uusinta, but the lack of resources has curbed the wildest experiments. In the 20 years since it was founded Avanti! has transformed from a radical challenger to an institution noticeably committed to the music and aesthetics of the 1980s.

There have also been signs of movement in the early music sector. The Sixth Floor Orchestra and Battalia, dating from the 1980s, now have some younger competitors, and the full-time symphony orchestras are increasingly applying authentic performing conventions.

What Finland really needs is more initiatives from outside the ‘establishment’ and bolder media experiments by composers. But, of course, there is hardly any market for these in a country with a small population. Sooner or later, such initiatives will find their way into the domain of public funding and the decision-making on cultural policy. Whether this decision-making is both democratically and artistically inspired remains to be seen.

New strategies

The recession taught the orchestras maintained out of public funds to cut their costs and devise new strategies. There have been false economies in the form of fewer concerts, but these have sometimes been inevitable because, say, of the vast increase in overheads and the cost of renting a hall. The introduction of market pricing for public buildings in the 1990s has meant that, as far as the orchestras are concerned, the state and municipalities have ended up giving with one hand and taking back with the other.

The Finnish orchestras have become versatile musical service providers. Though the emphasis is still on the conventional concert, this has been enlivened by such means as the composer-in-residence project under which 14 orchestras installed composers of their choice in 1997. These partnerships have yielded not only a growing number of premieres (45 in 2002, for example), but also more individual character in repertoire planning.

The composer-in-residence project has to some extent resulted in cliquishness as orchestras devote themselves to one composer and aesthetic mode at a time. Now that the initial enthusiasm has worn off, the project is showing some signs of flagging, but it has nevertheless given orchestras and audiences a deeper insight into the grass-roots process of composition.

The second-performance syndrome

Despite the steady supply of new music, Finnish composers have recently been voicing their concern about second performances, meaning that many works are premiered and then abandoned. Whereas it is, of course, up to composers to make their music interesting, orchestras could do more to get the works they have commissioned into wider circulation.

The example set by the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra was followed in the 1990s by ensembles such as Zagros and Uusinta (whose name in Finnish is a play on words meaning both ‘the latest’ and ‘repeat’), which are committed to promoting the very latest music. Avanti! was also the initiator of experiments with authentic performing conventions in the 1980s. The first Finnish early music ensemble, the Sixth Floor Orchestra specialising in Baroque and Classical music, recently reached the institutional stage on becoming a member of the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras.

An Avanti-like breadth of vision has helped many small orchestras in the provinces to establish an artistic image of their own. Not content merely to spread the message north of the Arctic Circle, the Chamber Orchestra of Lapland under John Storgårds has come up with some novelties and brilliant ideas. The same applies to the 12-player St. Michel Strings, unearthing gems that have caught the fancy of artists and audiences alike.

Education features high on the agenda of many orchestras today. The Finnish orchestras need not only new and exciting modes of operation, but also faith in the traditional concert and its future. The Helsinki Philharmonic, for example, has succeeded in proving the attraction of the ordinary, common-or-garden concert.

The search for the missing audience

Over the past few years, Finnish orchestras have been obliged to compete more and more for audiences. One of the biggest challenges has been tempting young people to set foot in the rewarding but exacting world of classical music.

Orchestras have been moaning for years about the age structure of their audiences, and there is no denying that the average age is indeed rising. This is not fully compensated by the fact that senior citizens are a renewable resource. Twenty years ago I counted myself among the youngest third at concerts, and sad to say, I am still a relative ‘youngster’.

Bands like Avanti! and the Radio Symphony Orchestra with a youthful repertoire and style seem to hold a greater attraction, at least for the young middle-aged, but no one seems to have any quick remedy for the dearth of under-thirties. Punters may be pulled in for crossover spectaculars and mega-events, but they seldom return to buy a season ticket.

Amateurs overlooked in training?

One of the recurring questions in Finland is why the thousands who pass through the music institutes do not go to concerts. Could it be that the training designed for future professionals has failed to provide an equally focused general musical education, so that pupils have acquired too narrow a vista of the world of music?

The classical music tradition in Finland goes back no more than a few generations, so nurturing new audiences is still one of the orchestras’ basic missions – especially now that music has more or less vanished from the school curriculum. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any quick solution to the problem: all we can do is trust that classical music will manage to adapt to the needs of a changing world and population.

Conductors made in Finland

The standard of the playing in Finnish orchestras has improved enormously over the past quarter of a century or so. This is still thanks more to the musicians, who get better and better as the years go by, than to the conductors, though the latter may reap more of the credit in the media.

Finnish conductors are aware of the vast improvement in performance and have learnt to respect their playing colleagues. Their management strategy is partnership-oriented rather than authoritarian, the mutual objective being the allocation of the available resources to achieve the best musical result.

Orchestras have tended to be hierarchical and inherently undemocratic. The Finnish ones are public property, financed by tax-payers, who have varying expectations. A concert needs the dedicated input of every listener and every performer. This approach could be described as the guiding artistic principle of the Finnish orchestra, and it maybe reflects something of the nation’s survival strategy in the past.

Antti Häyrynen is a freelance journalist and writer about music.

Translation: Susan Sinisalo