A guide to the Finnish contemporary music scene
Finland is one of the best nations for contemporary art music in the world! This is apparent in that there are several festivals around the country dedicated to contemporary music – but contemporary music is also programmed at ‘mainstream’ concerts and festivals on a regular basis. The art music scene in Finland is highly pluralist, and the range of performances is broad: basically everything from electroacoustic music to various genres of chamber music and orchestral music, and everything from concept-based pieces to pieces inspired by film music. The following is a brief survey of the various festivals and organisations.
Four main festivals for contemporary music
The most notable contemporary music festivals are two biennales – Musica Nova in February or March in odd-numbered years and the Tampere Biennale in April in even-numbered years – and the annual Time of Music (Musiikin aika) festival in the first week in July. These three festivals all have a full-scale programme exclusively dedicated to contemporary music and are also popular events for composers in Finland to meet and keep up. The biennales are held in major cities (Helsinki and Tampere, respectively) and may hence be a rather anonymous experience for attendees. By contrast, the Time of Music festival is held in the tiny town of Viitasaari, about a five-hour drive from Helsinki, and can be a very intimate experience – including the possibility of going to a sauna and swimming in a lake in the lucid Finnish summer night.
A slightly smaller yet likewise important annual contemporary music festival, the Ostrobothnian Contemporary Music Festival (Uuden Musiikin Lokakuu) is held in Oulu in northern Finland in October. Both Time of Music and the Ostrobothnian Contemporary Music Festival usually offer masterclasses for composers and often also for musicians interested in contemporary music.
Other festivals: combining contemporary works with other music
Beyond the festivals that serve up only contemporary music, there are several festivals that have a heavy emphasis on contemporary repertoire but include other repertoire as well.
An example of the latter is Avanti! Summer Sounds (Suvisoitto) in Porvoo at the end of June. This was established by conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste and the late flautist Olli Pohjola, specifically as a vehicle for contemporary music. The programme is usually curated by a composer or a musician who frequently performs contemporary music, examples of the latter being soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan (artistic director in 2014) and violinist Pekka Kuusisto (artistic director in 2011). In most years, the festival has a composer-in-residence and is paired with a masterclass titled Composing Workshop (Sävellyspaja), led by composers Jukka Tiensuu and Tomi Räisänen.
The Korsholm Music Festival in Korsholm near Vaasa at the end of July always has at least one composer-in-residence and regularly commissions new works from contemporary composers. The intimate Hetta Music Days, taking place during Easter week in Enontekiö in Lapland, curated by composer Tapio Tuomela, also has a beautiful program including everything from classical to contemporary music. This is the northernmost classical music festival in the European Union, and in addition to the festival it enriches the cultural life of the region with concerts at other times of year.
The chamber music RUSK Festival is a major event that is not profiled as a contemporary music festival as such but nevertheless has a composer-in-residence every year. This festival is held in Pietarsaari on the western coast of Finland in dark and rainy November – a unique atmosphere very different from the bright summer nights.
Rich grassroots movement
In addition to these major festivals, Finland has a rich grassroots movement of somewhat smaller festivals that programme a lot of contemporary music, although these are not included in the ‘official’ Finland Festivals roster.
The Tampering Festival, organised by young composers and musicians, is held in Tampere in August every other year (odd-numbered years). In Turku, former composition students organise the What Ever Works! (WeW!) Festival, with an open call for scores.
The Kallio New Music Days (Kallion Nykymusiikkipäivät) is held in Helsinki in January, organised by Tulkinnanvaraista, and Minimalia, a festival of minimalist music, is scattered around Helsinki at various venues and times.
Going further afield, we find the Kaivos Festival in Outokumpu in North Karelia, organised by the musicians of the ÄÄNI collective; the Silence Festival (Hiljaisuus-festivaali) in Lapland in the second week of June; and the Kumaus Festival in Lappeenranta in eastern Finland in August. These three might be described as interdisciplinary festivals, as they usually embrace branches of the arts other than music as well: the Kaivos Festival collaborates closely with dance students in Outokumpu, and its concerts are given in the old mine and mining museum, giving them a quite exotic flavour; the Silence Festival collaborated with circus artists in its latest edition; and Kumaus has introduced surprise concerts, where the programme is not announced in advance.
The Musequal Festival (Kokonainen-festivaali) is a wonderful chamber music festival worth checking out, held in Janakkala, about 100 km from Helsinki. This festival was founded by violinist Linda Suolahti and violist Mari Viluksela to focus on equality in music and to promote female and minority composers. It is held in summer, at varying times between May and August; this year’s festival will be in August.
Our Festival (Meidän Festivaali) is another interesting festival that has given a great deal of attention to equality in music. Curated by the Kamus Quartet, it is held in Järvenpää and Tuusula about 40 km north of Helsinki in the last week of July. This festival experiments with venues, some concerts being given in private homes that are not otherwise open to the public. Even though Our Festivals has, in 25 years, grown from a grassroots movement to become a part of the established Finland Festivals, it has never lost its enthusiasm for trying new and unexpected ideas in their multi-artistic and unconventional programmes.
Latosoitot is a younger festival still finding its footing. It is held at Mäntyniemi Manor, an old family farmhouse in Kesälahti in eastern Finland. They have experimented with concepts such as breakfast concerts at 7 AM, serving food along with superb music performed by Pekka Kuusisto and other world-class musicians.
Nordic Music Days – one of the oldest festivals in the world
Finland is a member of both Nordic Music Days and Young Nordic Music Days (Ung Nordisk Musik, UNM). Both are major contemporary music festivals held annually in each Nordic country in rotation, thus held in Finland every five years. Established in 1888, Nordic Music Days is one of the oldest still ongoing music festivals in the world.
Composers applying to have their works performed at Young Nordic Music Days must be under 30 years old, and there is thus a clear age divide between the two Nordic festivals. However, Nordic Music Days has no minimum age limit. Both festivals are very interesting, as they provide a broad overview of what kind of music is being written in each of the Nordic countries, besides being a meeting place for composers from across northern Europe. The most recent Nordic Music Days held in Helsinki was in November 2018; the next edition of the festival is planned to take place in Scotland in 2024, expanding the sphere of the festival beyond the Nordic countries themselves. Finland most recently hosted Young Nordic Music Days in Tampere in 2020, and the event will return to Finland in August 2025.
Ensembles for contemporary music
There are a number of small ensembles in Finland that focus on contemporary music. Uusinta Ensemble has a membership of nine or so and is a frequent guest at many of the festivals listed above. It also gives concerts of its own, usually eight concerts per year. The Zagros Ensemble, with four concerts each year, has a similar profile. A very different instrumentation can be found in defunensemble (piano, harp, flute, clarinet, cello and electronics), which gives eight to ten concerts annually. The Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, whose summer festival is referred to above, gives concerts of contemporary music during the concert season as well. These ensembles are all based in the Helsinki metropolitan area.
The city of Tampere also has a handful of contemporary music ensembles, such as TampereRaw, which was established in 2001 and now gives four concerts a year besides actively commissioning new works. The Tampering Ensemble is a younger outfit of 17 musicians, giving one or two concerts a year.
The Sibelius Academy has its own contemporary music ensemble/project, NYKY ensemble, which gives concerts in Helsinki with a variable lineup, usually four times a year. NYKY mainly performs repertoire by established European contemporary composers, its purpose being to acquaint students with core contemporary repertoire.
Amazing scene for choral music
In the field of vocal music, choirs are doing an amazing job at commissioning and premiering new works by contemporary composers. Finland has only one professional chamber choir, the Helsinki Chamber Choir (Helsingin Kamarikuoro) conducted by Nils Schweckendiek. They perform and record a great deal of contemporary music. But beyond this, there are numerous non-professional choirs of a high standard, such as EMO Ensemble, a group of ambitious young singers conducted by Pasi Hyökki that frequently gives dazzling performances of contemporary music. Student choirs are also remarkably adventurous in commissioning major pieces and concert concepts from various Finnish composers, and their concerts are commonly sold out no matter the size of the venue. They often actively explore new ways of presenting concerts and new venues, including working with lighting designers and performing in former industrial facilities. Among the numerous student choirs we might mention the Academic Male Voice Choir of Helsinki (Akademiska Sångföreningen) conducted by Elisa Huovinen and Female Voice Choir Lyran (Akademiska Damkören Lyran) conducted by Riku Laurikka.
There are plenty of other high-end non-professional choirs with an active interest in contemporary music; these include the YL Male Choir (Ylioppilaskunnan laulajat, YL), Somnium Ensemble, Kampin Laulu, Spira Ensemble, Dominante, Audite, theAcademic Choral Society (Akateeminen Laulu, AL) and Chorus Sanctae Ceciliae in the Helsinki metropolitan area, Key Ensemble in Turku and Tampere Cappella and the Näsi Chamber Choir in Tampere – to name but a few.
Opera goes contemporary
In the field of opera, the small independent opera companies OperaBox, the Finnish Chamber Opera (Suomalainen Kamariooppera) and Opera Skaala have an impressive track record in staging operas by contemporary composers. These three opera companies also collaborated to produce the Helsinki Contemporary Opera Festival (Helsingin oopperakesä) in 2021 and 2022, a run of performances of several contemporary operas within one week. Most of these performances were staged at the historical Alexander Theatre in Helsinki, which up until the 1990s was the home of the Finnish National Opera.
The Finnish National Opera produces contemporary operas too, usually one or two productions per year. It also commissions school operas for children, performed both at the Opera House and at schools across the country.
The Tampering Ensemble referred to above is supported by a non-profit association named Tampering, established by young composition students in 2013 to promote contemporary music in Tampere. This was inspired by the famous Ears Open Society (Korvat auki!), established for the same purpose in Helsinki in 1977 by composers and musicians many of whom have gone on to become household names, such as Kaija Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen.
The Ears Open Society is still active, organising three or four concerts per year. Membership of the Society is warmly recommended (the annual fee is EUR 30). This gets you not only a newsletter about upcoming concerts but also free tickets to concerts of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the leading professional orchestra in Finland for commissioning and performing new works by Finnish composers.
Useful concert calendars
For keeping up to date with world premieres in Finland, I recommend the online calendar of the Society of Finnish Composers (which, however, is in Finnish only). All premieres of works by its members are listed there. These premieres are also listed in the monthly classical music magazine, Rondo.
Some major festivals and orchestras
To conclude, many of Finland’s major ‘mainstream’ classical music festivals and orchestras also programme a lot of contemporary music. Apart from those already mentioned, I would advise considering these:
The Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival in the town of Kuhmo in northern Finland in July; the Kaunianen Music Festival in the Helsinki metropolitan area in November; the Winter Accordion Festival (Talviharmonikka), including a newly commissioned accordion concerto every other year (even-numbered years), in Kokkola on the western coast in February; and, of course, the enormous multi-discipline Helsinki Festival (Helsingin Juhlaviikot), with music and other arts occupying a full three weeks at the end of August each year.
Several orchestras actively commission new works in addition to the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, including the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Tapiola Sinfonietta, the Tampere Philharmonic, Sinfonia Lahti, the Oulu Symphony, the Kuopio City Orchestra, the Joensuu City Orchestra, the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra and theLapland Chamber Orchestra. They all have several new works on every annual programme.
I hope this brief introduction will help you find interesting contemporary music and exciting events in Finland!
Featured photo: Lilli Maijala at Our Festival by Maarit Kytöharju.