Orchestras in Finnish Music Policy

Kai Amberla, former executive director of Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras, 10.1.1997

Orchestras constitute the foundation of musical life in Finland. The orchestras based all around Finland act as a cultural focus in their respective regional centres, which radiate musical energy into their surroundings.

At present, there are about 30 professional orchestras in Finland. There are fourteen actual professional symphony orchestras, eight chamber orchestras whose members enjoy a monthly salary, and a dozen or so professional orchestras whose members are paid on a freelance basis. Finland has only five full-size symphony orchestras employing 73 to 112 musicians; however, even smaller orchestras (with 28 to 60 members) can be described as symphony orchestras with regard to their repertoire, which includes more extensive concerts where their numbers are augmented with freelance musicians.

Cities supporting orchestras

Finland probably has more orchestras in relation to its population (5.2 million) than any other country in the world. These orchestras are also remarkably evenly spread throughout the country.

How has this orchestral richness come about? As in all Scandinavian countries, public funding is a major component in the economy of orchestras in Finland. The main responsibility is taken by the cities supporting their own orchestras; cities account for an average of 60% of orchestra budgets. The State contributes an average share of 25% on the basis of the Theatre and Orchestra Act passed in 1993.Although orchestras are important for State and municipal cultural policy, it is important to note that the orchestra system was not created under Government guidance. On the contrary, every Finnish orchestra was founded on the strength of the efforts of local music lovers. Without exception, the public sector only became involved when it became apparent that the orchestra meant business and wished to develop.

Finland's oldest orchestra, the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra, has roots that go back to 1790, but it was 130 years later before the City of Turku took it under its financial wing. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1882 and was taken over by the City of Helsinki in 1919.

Other Finnish orchestras have a similar history, although briefer: for example, the Finnish Broadcasting Company founded a small studio ensemble in 1927 that evolved into the present Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; in Tampere, local music lovers founded an orchestra in 1930, and in 1947 it was already adopted by the City of Tampere; in Kuopio, there has been an orchestra since 1909, but it has only been municipal since 1976.

Live music is appreciated

Municipal orchestras did not properly take off until after the Second World War. At the same time, however, their standard began to rise at a steady rate. In the 1980s and 1990s in particular, their professional competence has risen greatly, and the best orchestras have created an international reputation for themselves.

The main reason for this is the emergence of a new, more skilled and more ambitious generation of musicians. Finland's only university-level music institution, the Sibelius Academy, and eleven conservatories all over Finland have produced a large number of top-notch professionals for Finnish orchestras, and accordingly the proportion of foreign musicians employed in Finnish orchestras is quite low. This professional training is supported by the 140 publicly funded children's and adolescents' music schools, which ensure that talented musicians are identified and guided to professional tuition.

Another reason for the orchestra boom is the amazing rise of Finnish conductors to the top of the world in their league. This has provided a boost for orchestras, too, while on the other hand the orchestras have contributed to improving the conductors' performance. We should also note that the administrative competence of orchestras has also improved hugely during the 1990s.

Finnish orchestra policy has also proven itself in the sense that the supremacy of the three largest cities is no longer self-evident. In addition to the traditional leading orchestras (the Orchestra of the Finnish National Opera, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the Helsinki, Tampere and Turku Philharmonic Orchestras), there have been many new and surprising successes.

Perhaps the most stunning example is the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, based in the town of Kokkola (population: 35,000). Its recordings and concert performances have earned it a reputation as one of the world's best chamber orchestras. Sinfonia Lahti is another case in point: a medium-sized town plagued by unemployment is home to an orchestra that has reaped a series of significant recording awards and is poised for international touring.

The recent rise of orchestras in northern Finland is also noteworthy. The Oulu Symphony Orchestra, which markets itself as 'the northernmost symphony orchestra in the world', has improved its standards at a commendable rate, and the even more northerly Chamber Orchestra of Lapland has profiled itself with a modern and exploratory repertoire.

The Vivo Symphony Orchestra, a youth orchestra recruiting talented music students from all over Finland, is another interesting phenomenon. Many of its members have graduated to professional orchestras.

It is occasionally pointed out in a critical tone that there are too many orchestras in Finland and that they are too small. It is true that Finnish orchestras have developed differently from their counterparts in other Scandinavian countries. In Finland, it has been considered important to guarantee live music performances all around the country, even if this involves chamber orchestras, rather than to concentrate resources and maintain a few full-size symphony orchestras in the major cities. This has enabled nationwide contact with live music.

Naturally, economic difficulties have given rise to some threats. In dire straits, cities have often debated the feasibility of maintaining an orchestra; however, in all cases to date orchestras have survived. The inherent value of having an orchestra has been considered more important than the cost.

Finland is a sparsely populated country, and cities have always been quite self-sufficient. In order to provide a decent programme of orchestral music, a city has to have an orchestra of its own. It has even been said that a city without an orchestra is no city at all.

The Orchestra Act

The fundamental concept of Finnish orchestra policy and the Orchestra Act is that the State supports an orchestra if its home town is willing to invest in it and commit itself to its upkeep. The Act, enacted in 1993, states pithily that "a prerequisite for receiving State support is that the theatre or orchestra is owned by a municipality, an intermunicipal authority or a private society or foundation whose bye-laws stipulate the practice of theatrical or orchestral activities or the maintenance of a theatre or an orchestra, and that such a theatre or orchestra gives regular and professional performances."

In practice, this means that the State will not interfere in how the orchestra works; it merely contributes some of the money. The State guarantees continuity and creates economic security, but all administrative authority is left to the local authorities and the orchestra itself. The State only requires that the orchestra performs regularly and on a professional basis.

Thus, the State has created freedom for orchestras rather than constraining it.

The Orchestra Act guarantees a regular State subsidy to 22 symphony orchestras, one big band and one folk music ensemble. Only two significant orchestras fall outside the scope of the Act: the Orchestra of the Finnish National Opera, which is financed directly by the National Opera itself, and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, which is financed wholly by the Finnish Broadcasting Company.

Audiences have found the orchestras

Dwindling audiences at orchestral concerts are a problem in nearly all Western countries, but Finland is a rare exception. As the table enclosed shows, audience figures have increased steadily in recent years. A major milestone was reached in 1996 when annual attendance at orchestra concerts exceeded one million. This is about 20% of Finland's population, one of the highest figures of its kind in the world.

One reason for this must lie in the success of national music policy. Because of State and municipal support, ticket prices are reasonable and present no obstacle for anyone attending. Ticket prices for an ordinary symphony concert range between 10 and 15 euros.

Symphony orchestras are usually accused of conservative programming, and there is often some truth in this. Repertoires are weighted in favour of the Classical and Romantic period, partly because that is what audiences want and partly because one of the main duties of orchestras is to perform the masterpieces of the genre for each successive generation of concertgoers.

However, Finnish orchestras have always featured a sizeable proportion of contemporary music, particularly contemporary Finnish music. The statistics are eloquent: in 1995, Finnish orchestras commissioned and premiered 46 new orchestral works. The corresponding figures were 36 in 1996 , 42 in 1997 and 33 in 1998 - and 60 in 2003! Orchestras have thus been quite active in commissioning new works. Indeed, the problem usually lies not in having a work premiered but in having it performed again; the concept of the 'farewell premiere' is well-known in Finland, as it is elsewhere in Europe.

A new chapter in the history of music in Finland opened in autumn 1997 when no fewer than fourteen orchestras embarked on a national project entitled Back into the Future — Composers as Part of the Orchestra. Under this project, orchestras nominated a composer-in-residence and committed themselves to collaborating with him for a period of one to five years.

The results so far have been a pleasant surprise to everyone involved. A composer joining an orchestra has brought new energy, new ideas and new motivation to its work. The composers not only write music for 'their' orchestras but help with programme planning, participate in school projects, give lectures, etc. Most significantly, audiences have been almost alarmingly enthusiastic: the composer-in-residence is clearly an excellent vehicle for conveying new and perhaps not very accessible music to regular concertgoers. When the orchestra and its audience perceive a composer as 'theirs', his music is received with quite a different degree of interest. The historical myth of the composer in his ivory tower has been replaced with the actual presence of a living composer.

Passive to active

A modern symphony orchestra is no longer a manufacturing plant that churns out concerts. Orchestras have been active in seeking new modes of operation, breaking out of their shells and creating links with the surrounding community.

Finnish orchestras are constantly exploring new ways of reaching out to audiences both young and old. School projects have been particularly popular. In addition to traditional school concerts, educational events in collaboration with school classes have been encouraged, giving children the chance to participate themselves — for instance by composing music under the tuition of a professional musician and getting their work performed. The idea is to activate children: instead of passive listening, they gain hands-on experience of what an orchestra is about.

An exciting new development is organizing concerts away from concert halls. Orchestras have gone into parks, market squares and shopping centres, giving free concerts that reach audiences of tens of thousands. The aim here is to go where people can be found, instead of waiting for them to come to a concert.

All this enables Finnish orchestras to face up to the challenges of the new millennium. New activities are arising alongside the old, classical, immeasurably valuable tradition. New compositions, new ways of meeting the public, new forms of collaboration between composers and between other fields in the arts — and, above all, the constant advancement of professional competence and ambition.

By Kai Amberla, former executive director of Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras