Master class at the Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, Finland
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.