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Brighter times ahead for Finnish orchestras

by Antti Häyrynen

There are probably more orchestras, music schools and colleges and music festivals in Finland per head of population than in any other country in the world. Crucial to the development has been the Finnish Theatres and Orchestras Act, in which the state guarantees a certain number of person years for orchestras every year. The subsidy has not kept up with actual trends in costs, but the situation is soon to improve.

Orchestras were established in Finland in conjunction with zestful nationalist movements. The first wave came at the end of the nineteenth century, a period of change that led to Finland gaining independence in 1917. Another spontaneous surge of activity occurred in the period of unification following the Second World War. The third, most decisive period was in the 70s and 80s, when many orchestras, new and old, were brought under municipal ownership.

The Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras has 29 members at present. Of these, just some are full-scale symphony orchestras, others are sinfoniettas and chamber orchestras of varying sizes, and some are orchestras that specialise in old or new light or jazz music. Because over the years orchestras were created independently by those involved in the arts or people interested in music, they have also sprung up all over Finland. It is only in recent times that orchestras have started to be established mainly in southern parts of the country and the Helsinki area.

State to the rescue in lean years of recession

Government control became a part of Finnish musical life when in 1968 a law was passed on subsidies for music colleges and schools. Regular public funding over a period of just under 40 years has done much to increase not only the number of active professional musicians but, in particular, the quality of the playing. This has also been the result of the work of the orchestras themselves. The rise in standards of many Finnish orchestras to conform to international requirements has relied above all on effective training programmes, although Finnish conductors who have made a name for themselves are also happy to take their share of the credit.

Most Finnish orchestras – with the notable exception of the Finnish National Opera Orchestra and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra – are city orchestras maintained by the local authorities (Finnish municipalities). The recession at the start of the 1990s posed a serious threat to the existence of some orchestras, although not a single orchestra was dropped at the time thanks to the activities of orchestras themselves and civic movements surrounding orchestras.

At present there are probably more orchestras, music schools and colleges and music festivals in Finland per head of population than anywhere else in the world. The orchestras also achieve a measure of success: every year in Finland they reach an audience of more than a million, in a country of just five million people.

Crucial to the development in recent years has been the Theatres and Orchestras Act which came into force in Finland in 1993 and in which the state made a commitment to guarantee a certain number of person years for orchestras every year. These state contributions presently apply to 25 orchestras, the folk music ensemble Tallari, and the children’s music group Loiskis.

The main purpose of state aid under the Act was to provide security for orchestras in financial difficulties owing to nationwide economic depression.

Financial support dragging its heels

It is more than ten years old now, but the Theatres and Orchestras Act has only partially achieved its objectives: the number of person years guaranteed by state subsidies has lagged seriously behind real developments, and the local authorities, always keen to manage their finances in their own way, have used the cash meant for orchestras for other purposes.

The person year, which is used a unit of the state contribution, is calculated on the basis of salaries and fees paid by the orchestras. By 2003 the difference between what the state paid out and actual person years had grown to 43, i.e. the size of one complete medium-sized orchestra. In ten years the number of person years has not increased at all in real terms.

Representatives of orchestras have on many an occasion pointed out to the Finnish Government and Parliament that state subsidies for orchestras are lagging behind and that certain shortcomings in the implementation of the Act need to be addressed. Orchestras have had the additional burden of rents and other property expenses, which began to rise steeply after the local authorities corporatised their property dealings or when pressure started to be put on concert venues to account for their profits and losses in detail.

At the present time it is difficult for Finnish orchestras to find areas in which to make savings. The musicians’ pay is relatively low compared internationally, and there is continual debate about conductors’ salaries. Traditionally, the administrative machinery for orchestras has been lightweight, with no more than ten staff employed in any one orchestra office, and in the case of many small orchestras the administration is just done by two employees, or sometimes even one. Orchestras’ productivity in proportion to number of concerts and audience size can be regarded as excellent, although no great store is set by that in the world of artistic endeavour.

New law promises improvements

Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen’s government has passed a new law, in force from the beginning of 2006, regarding state subsidies for orchestras. The aim is to increase them by 37% a year over a three-year period (2008-2010) to reflect real costs. After that, state contributions would rise regularly in accordance with an agreed index adjusted every four years. For the first time, the new law takes account of the rents and other property expenses which orchestras have to pay. More money is promised for theatres and museums too.

But with the new law, 60% of orchestras’ expenditure will still be the responsibility of the local authorities, and there will not be any guarantees either that the increased state contributions will get to the orchestras and not be used to subsidise other municipal expenditure. In this connection the state has very little influence: all they can do is gently encourage those local authorities that are prepared to invest in their orchestras.

Another law that came in at the start of 2006 is aimed at the development of orchestras. It enables the Finnish Ministry of Education to support special projects for orchestras and new approaches to the way they work. The estimated figures required under the new law will be ready in spring 2006, arrived at on the basis of data for 2005, and the first set of results will therefore be made available in 2008.

At long last, the future for Finnish orchestras seems brighter.

Translation: Spencer Allman