After Stockholm, Eleanor and I spent delightfully intense days in Finland, a quiet, sparsely populated land uncomfortably close geographically and historically to the once great Russian Bear that still hovers on its eastern border.
The trip to Finland was made possible by our visit the week before to Sweden and by an inexpensive voyage on the Silja ferry “Symphony” which regularly plies the Baltic Sea between Stockholm and Helsinki. The “Symphony” features live ‘puppets’-teenage greeters dressed in cuddly costumes alla “Sesame Street”- who wave and smile exuberantly regardless of a passenger’s mood, age or disposition towards youngsters in cuddly polyester fur.
Our sixth level cabin window overlooked a “mid-way”: the main deck of an eleven story high concourse featuring shops, restaurants, gaudy neon lights and, at 6:00 PM, an aerialist who performed a reasonably entertaining, but brief routine to the delight of children and adults.
Advised by a “Symphony” worker to eat seafood, we entered the Seafood restaurant immediately upon opening and chose a sea-view window. By the time we had our first dozen oysters on the half shell, the sun had set and in our window we saw only a reflection of the mid-way; at this latitude, the sun goes down early. (The oysters were delicious.) Our night in the cabin beds was not so good. The Baltic was roiling and we swayed gently back and forth, hardly sleeping, but not seasick.
Over breakfast the North shore of Estonia sat low and barely visible on the horizon as our humming Symphonic behemoth steadfastly ignored the choppy sea, dark gray and cold. From our window, The Ultimate Thule seemed at hand.
Then the magnificent Helsinki harbour appeared, and we slid too quickly past the earthworks of its World Heritage site, Suomenlinna Fortress, never conquered and still on guard today.
The exceptionally talented percussionist Antti Ohenoja and his former composer, now conducting student partner, Jackie Shin meet us at Symphony’s dock. We exchange cordial hellos and then a short street car ride bring us to within a block of our Sibelius Academy apartment.
Antti is the latest in a series of Finnish students who studied in Toronto. To make our visit possible, he gathered resources from Finland’s Army and the Sibelius Academy. (Military service is compulsory in Finland. To fulfill his military obligation, Antti left his Toronto studies and returned to Finland for one year.)
I’m happy to begin work the evening of our arrival. The Sibelius Academy percussion students play excerpts from “Scheherazade” and we discuss dynamics and playing techniques. They are all fine players with sensitive touches and intelligent faces.
Harri Lehtinen, who teaches at the Tampere Conservatory comes South with his student percussion ensemble. They play “Suite” by Lou Harrison and “Trio per Uno” by Nebojsa Zivkovic. Both performances are astounding. Lehtinen’s students are such strong players and would easily grace any percussion department in Europe or North America. There is very little to discuss except gong muting issues in the Harrison. Later, a young student plays my snare drum solo “Clean it up . . . Please!” He “nails” it.
The next day I have the luxury of presenting my Keynote drum history presentation with the latest technology: crystal clear projector, professional sound and, with Antti riding shotgun, complete freedom to talk – everything computerized and courtesy of the Sibelius Academy.
I visit the army band and watch as they walk through an outdoor routine for an upcoming Tattoo and then give my drum history presentation in their band room. They are all professional musicians and play splendidly. They are an attentive and appreciative audience
Eleanor and I have time to spend with Tim Ferchen, an Eastman School of Music graduate and former classmate of Bob Becker. Tim has been a major performer in Finland since graduating from Eastman and has recently written a marvelous marimba concerto titled “Tino”. “Tino” was played most recently by Antti Rislakki who is timpanist with the Tapiolo Sinfonietta. Antti “The First”, as he is referred to in Toronto, attends my classes at the Sibelius Academy and we have wine and cheese together with Eleanor in our apartment, and dinner at a near-by hotel. He is a splendid fellow with two lovely daughters and he is a terrific player. Tim Ferchen praised his performance of “Tino” with Tapiolo. “Tino” is a work that should attract concertizing marimbists and receive international performances.
At the end of our busy week in Helsinki, Eleanor and I took the two and one half hour train ride north to Tampere where we met a large contingent of friends and former students. Nathan and Stephanie Archer traveled eight hours by train from Oulu with their three small children to meet us. For years, Nathan, his dad and I had played golf together in and around Toronto. After graduating from university, Nathan and Stephanie were invited to teach in Finland. It was a wonderful reunion,
There is much to hear and tell. Tampere is Finland’s second largest city, after Helsinki and a very special place. Its musicians are knowledgeable and dedicated; their respect and appreciation for each other’s work is palpable.
Tiina Laukkanen, mother of two children under ten years, is the timpanist of the Tampere Symphony Orchestra and the first Finnish percussionist to study in Toronto. She is a force. In Finland’s patriarchal society, one finds it difficult to imagine the pressures endured by a woman attempting to obtain and hold the position of principal timpanist in a major symphony orchestra.
In the afternoon we attend a lovely lunch next to the conservatory and then watch Risto make his magic with a young drum student. The lesson is observed by the student’s Father and a child psychologist who is studying the effects of music training on the human brain. (In a future article, I’ll write more about Risto Skrikberg and his unique contributions to music in Finland.) In the next studio Harri Lehtinen’s students play “Log Cabin Blues” for me. Everyone is in top form. Very moving.
Friday evening Risto Skrikberg and his wife Irmeli drove Eleanor and me to the Tampere Symphony where we heard a very moving performance of the Sibelius 1st Symphony. However, the highlight of the evening was an after concert dinner hosted by all the percussionists with Eleanor and me as honored guests.
The next morning Tiina and Risto drive us to Helsinki airport. They are special people, real characters, alive and dedicated, holding special places in my life. The trip gives us time to enjoy our company and relax. We stop for coffee at a roadside restaurant and then continue on to Helsinki where, alas, too soon, our visit is over.
We fly to Toronto via Amsterdam. Rehearsals for the new Eric Ewazen concerto for wind ensemble start in a few days. Then off to Dallas, Texas to rehearse with conductor Jack Delaney who commissioned the work for Nexus and the Southern Methodist, Meadows School of the Arts Wind Ensemble. The premier was in Dallas and two nights later we performed the work in Austin, Texas for the 2008 Percussive Arts Society International Convention. A busy time! But we’re soon off for Ithaca, New York and Cornell University to meet Ruth Komanoff Underwood and Gordon Stout.
Some years ago my wife and I visited friends in Tampere, Finland. We attended a concert by the Tampere Philharmonic and the programme began with a performance of the Sibelius (1865-1957)1st Symphony. Excepting Sibelius’ Violin Concerto and of course Finlandia, I had heard very little music by this revered Finnish icon. Further, I was not particularly interested in hearing his music, ignoring it as I had for instance, the music of Carl Nielson. Though relegating both to some distant and dim back burner, their flame never-the-less refused to go out, eventually demanding attention.
In Tampere, Sibelius grabbed my full attention. My good friend, Tiina Laukkanen has been the timpanist of the orchestra for over 20 years. (See my article, “Helsinki & Tampere Finland”.) The 1st Symphony begins with a soft timpani roll and the house was quietly awaiting its sound. The audience reminded me of one I had encountered at a new music concert in Reykjavik, Iceland. Before the concert a man addressed the audience. I had never heard the Icelandic language spoken and was over awed by its archaic sound. In my imagination, we were transported back to the time of the Icelandic Sagas. We were in a church and excepting the speaker’s voice, complete silence reigned. The atmosphere of complete attention was palpable.
The performance of Sibelius was met with the same attention and I began to learn a bit about the spell the music of Sibelius has cast upon his devotees.
Not long ago I purchased a CD of Mravinsky recordings with the Leningrad Philharmonic, Melodiya MCD 223, The Mravinsky Legacy, Volume 4. Evgeny Mravinsky conducted the Leningrad Orchestra for fifty years, 1938-1988, and is credited with establishing the orchestra’s great precision and control of dynamics. I listened to the single movement Sibelius 7th Symphony, recorded in 1965 and I, in the word of my friend Bill Cahn “Epihed”, (from epiphany) when the trombone heralded forth its first solo. It sings again near the end, this time accompanied by an equally bold trumpet.
And so, the purpose of this article? Why has this stentorian style of playing disappeared? The Leningrad Orchestra now has modern brass and wind instruments and players and conductors are favouring an homogenist style in keeping with modern practices. Perhaps. But listen again and ask yourself, “Wouldn’t it be thrilling to hear a blatant, unabashed declaration such as this, pealing forth from a modern symphony orchestra?”
Recently Tiina sent me the symphonies and other famous works of Sibelius recorded by the Bourenmouth Symphony Orchestra directed by Paavo Allan Engelbert Berglund (1929-2012).* I had been reluctant to commit to a particular conductor and orchestra and Tiina solved my dilemma in one fell swoop. All the performances are worthy listening, but for entry level Sibelius explorers, the relevatory rendition of Finlandia is recommended.
* EMI Classics a 1012 compilation of recordings made between 1972 and 1982.
Posted by robinengelman on July 23, 2013 in Commentaries & Critiques, Composers, History, Unassigned
Tags: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Leninfrad Philharmonic, Mravinsky, Paavo Burglund, Sibelius, Tampere Philharmonic, Tinna Laukkanen