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Concert venues in all shapes and sizes

by Santeri Kaipiainen

Quarries and ravines, repurposed industrial facilities and world-class auditoriums: music occupies an incredibly diverse range of spaces in Finland. How are these needs shifting with technological and social changes?

In the realm of the arts, Finland is known globally not only for music but also for architecture and design. Wherever music is performed, sound and space meet. Concert halls, wherever they may be in the world, tend to be designed to be visually impressive, even monumental.

There are currently multiple changes going on in society at large that will eventually be reflected in new needs for concert halls and other spaces for music in Finland too.

Natural acoustics: at the mercy of the elements

In Finland, many festivals are held in small communities and organise performances at locations that are close to nature or otherwise unusual. Meidän Festivaali or Our Festival hosts concerts at villas around Tuusulanjärvi lake that were home to a number of prominent National Romantic artists more than a century ago, and the Kaivos Festival in Outokumpu is, as its name indicates, largely set in an abandoned copper mine (kaivos being the Finnish word for ‘mine’). Classical music will again be performed on the rocky slopes of Luostotunturi fell in Lapland at the turn of August 2021, after a hiatus of a few years.

One of the most celebrated outdoor concert venues in Finland is the Mätäsvaara quarry lagoon in Lieksa. Molybdenum was quarried here from 1939 to 1947; after the end of the war, the demand for the metal in the munitions industry plummeted. The quarry was abandoned and it filled with water, neglected for years until it was rediscovered as a concert venue for the Lieksa Brass Week in 1995.

“It was fairly early on in the festival’s history that we came up with the masterstroke of putting performers on a raft in the middle of the quarry lagoon. It is acoustically brilliant, like playing on a mirror-calm lake with the sound carrying magnificently all around, reflected from the surrounding rock faces. It is particularly well suited for brass instruments, and if the weather is fine, it is one of the most exquisite concert venues on the planet,” says trumpet player Jouko Harjanne, Artistic Director of the Lieksa Brass Week. “There are plenty of handsome and acoustically splendid ruins in southern Europe, of course, but because of the climate you can only hold concerts there late in the evening.”

Eventually, the permanent seating for 400 at Mätäsvaara was built so that the lagoon was on the right and both audience and performers could be placed on dry land. “The problem was that if there was any motion in the water, the raft would rock so that it became difficult to play. But even with this setup, the acoustics are delicious,” says Harjanne, going on to explain that performers can also be placed on the surrounding cliff tops.

Mätäsvaara is a setting that audiences find attractive, and the major challenge is in fact not marketing but meteorology – the famously changeable Finnish summer weather. “If there’s thunder or heavy rain, we have no choice but to postpone or cancel. The Spanish Brass Quintet once performed at the quarry in a ‘typical Finnish summer’, and they begged us never to put them there again! If the weather is cool, the rock enhances the chill. That, by the way, is also a problem at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in the otherwise wonderful Medieval castle of Olavinlinna.”

Lieksan Vaskiviikko 2019 N Crafts Vaakac Ilkka Karppanen
Japanese brass quintet N-Crafts performing at the Lieksa Brass Week, Mätäsvaara lagoon in 2019.
Photo: Ilkka Karppanen

Joined with wood

Sibelius Hall in Lahti is also located by water and also embodies a connection to woodland and to industry. Built in 2000, the concert hall adjoins an old red-brick building that used to be an industrial carpentry workshop.

“The old part of the complex is a listed building, inside and out. It now houses rehearsal rooms, offices, meeting rooms and a club for amplified music. It is linked to the new hall through the public foyer, known as Metsähalli [Forest Hall], which is flanked by the wall of the new concert hall and the red-brick wall of the old factory. The hall has a ceiling supported by wood beams, but the floor is of concrete, so the materials here allude to the industrial history of the area,” says Jukka Kaunisto, Operations Manager of Sibelius Hall. “When this was completed, it was the largest wood building built in over a century, though the glass elevation obscures the wood structure.”

The concert hall is in the traditional shoebox shape. Its acclaimed acoustics were designed by Russell Johnson, founder of the world-famous Artec Consultants based in New York.

“It was clear from the first that acoustics would be paramount in this building. This does mean that with amplified music the sound engineer has to have a certain level of competence to deal with the hall. It used to be the case that visiting technicians didn’t pay attention to what our own people were telling them, but now they’ve learned to respect the particular characteristics of the hall,” says Kaunisto.

The usage of Sibelius Hall used to be fairly evenly divided between classical concerts, popular concerts and conferences. Since the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to conferences, the people at Sibelius Hall have been preparing for new operating models.

“I believe that hybrid events, with listeners both on site and online, are here to stay,” Kaunisto says. “We’ve already begun to invest in this capability, and we always try to stay in touch with the cutting edge of events technology.”

Revitalising a depot

The home of the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, Culture House Korundi, was also created around an old red-brick building, in this case a post bus depot that was spared the scorched-earth tactic of German forces retreating towards Norway as Finland sought to drive them out in the Lapland War of 1944–1945. Architect Juhani Pallasmaa initially revamped the depot for the Rovaniemi Art Museum in 1986; in 2011 a concert hall and other facilities were added, and the building was redesignated a cultural centre.

“Having an art museum and an orchestra under the same roof is a combo unique in Finland,” says Heli Huhanantti, Sales Manager at Korundi. “The depot lends a sense of history, the sort of irreplaceable atmosphere that you just cannot get in a new building. The encounter between past and present is particularly well illustrated in the foyer, where you can see the old red-brick external wall, the wall of the new concert hall and the glass ceiling overhead. Pallasmaa has created a space that is at once indoors and outdoors and exists in both past and present.”

Huhanantti notes that Korundi, now approaching its 10th anniversary, has attracted an increasing stream of visitors, and the number of annual events doubled over the past five years up until the coronavirus restrictions kicked in. In addition to art exhibitions and concerts, the complex hosts meetings, seminars and multiform events. “Our customers immediately recognise how excellent the acoustics are, but they also soon realise how they can organise events that break the usual boundaries. An example of this is the Korundijazz festival, where visitors can freely move between the concert hall and other rooms, enjoying the music, good company and refreshments.”

Huhanantti believes that having spaces with multiple and flexible uses is a growing trend. “Events may feature a series of multi-discipline combinations, and concert halls may struggle to respond to the requirements for spatial flexibility according to the customer’s needs. I believe that live events will continue to be streamed for online audiences, particularly here in Lapland where the distances are great.”

Korundi Hall
Like the Sibelius Hall in Lahti, the home of the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, Culture House Korundi, was also created around an old red-brick building.
Photo: Culture House Korundi

Carbon sink and bee hives

Combating climate change is also trending, very much so, and Tampere Hall – home to the largest concert hall in the Nordic countries – is responding to the challenge. The building achieved carbon neutrality in 2019 by reducing and compensating for emissions. The company also encourages event organisers to compensate for their carbon footprints.

“These include not just the emissions from the production itself but also emissions from the vehicles used by audience members, and meals. Compensation may involve things like planting tree saplings at our carbon sink in the woodlands of Lempäälä,” says Mika Nevalainen, Business Director at Tampere Hall. He notes that conference and meeting organisers have been very much on the ball in compensating for emissions from their events.

“Some concert organisers are fully on board, as witness our first carbon-neutral classical music festival, Tampere Chamber Music. From what we’ve seen, the classical music people are more advanced in this respect than people in pop and rock music.”

Another ecological impact, albeit a minor one, is provided by the Tampere Hall roof garden. “It has provided some of the herbs, salads and vegetables used in our restaurants, but the main contribution is in the bee hives that we’ve kept up there for the past two summers. The bees have pollinated the deciduous trees in the Kaleva district,” Nevalainen reveals.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Tampere Hall had about 1,000 events per year, with a combined visitor count of about 600,000.

“Businesses will be back as soon as possible. We can see that people are getting tired of virtual events, and we already have a lot of demand for hybrid events. Audiences are yearning for live music, but even so, I don’t believe that streamed events and concerts will go away, at least not completely.”

Nevalainen explains that Tampere Hall made a quick leap into the world of remote events. “I feel that we are agile in exploring new things, whether it be environmental sustainability, hybrid events or a green screen studio. In technology, we are seeing developments in augmented reality and virtual reality to enrich concert experiences, but it remains to be seen how soon and to what extent these will be deployed. A good example of leveraging technology came with the concert given by the Tampere Philharmonic outdoors in Sorsapuisto park in 2019. We used Soundscape technology to create an ambience very much like a concert hall in the park.”

Tampere Talo Carbon Sink In Lempaala C Anne Sivula
Tampere Hall achieved carbon neutrality in 2019. Compensating emissions can be done i.e. by planting tree saplings at the hall's own carbon sink.
Photo: Anne Sivula

Virtual acoustics are here already

The more acoustic music migrates out of concert halls, the more important the role of sound design in amplification becomes. In Helsinki, for instance, chamber orchestras and concert series have discovered former industrial premises like Suvilahti or Konepaja, where the acoustics as they stand are not always so good for music.

The dance work Transit by the Tero Saarinen Company will be given its first performance in Finland at the Helsinki Festival, in the Sea Cable Hall at the Cable Factory in Helsinki, in August 2021. Its sound designer is Tuomas Norvio, who has also designed the sound environment for the new premises of the TSC in the same wing of the Cable Factory. The TSC Studio is equipped with 22 speakers and two calibration systems that enable an immersive listening experience.

“I got the opportunity to realise a dream about what could be done with sound design in a dance studio. The space is 170 square metres and is principally designed for dance rehearsals, but it’s also good that it has stage acoustics, because it can act as a ‘real life test’,” says Norvio. In recent years, his projects have included the exhibition Egypt of Glory at the Amos Rex art museum and the immersive and interactive installation Laila at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet.

“Now, finally, we are getting into immersiveness with sound design. It’s a big thing that Apple is introducing the Dolby Atmos format [a technology aiming to produce an increasingly realistic audio illusion], and it’s not limited to films. Systems where we can design and program immersive sound are now approximating real-world acoustics and enable an orchestra to be amplified so that it still sounds realistic. On the downside, this is expensive stuff, and the placement of elements in a concert hall may cause aesthetic issues.”

Norvio feels that sound has come to be taken more seriously in the 2000s, particularly when operating with amplified sound.

“Venues are better equipped, and technical devices have become smaller. Internet-based systems make it easy to move sound around in multiple channels. This is a huge step for the listener, quality-wise,” says Norvio. He also points out that the spatial needs of natural and virtual acoustics are different.

Tsc Studio Immersive Sound System 2 C Tero Ahonen
Tuomas Norvio designed the sound environment for the new premises of the Tero Saarinen Company.
Photo: Tero Ahonen

“In order to be able to create an immersive sound with technology, you have to damp the natural acoustics of the space. Many venues now have portable panels with which the acoustics can be modified, and now that orchestras have had to perform via streaming, they have made huge advancements in miking. It’s no longer a case of designing a space with a single acoustic and leaving everyone to cope with that as best they can.”

Tempus fugit

Looking at the history of Finnish music, public concerts took almost no time at all to get up and running, but purpose-built venues for concerts were much slower to appear. In the absence of dedicated concert halls, orchestras and above all festivals have been wonderfully inventive in giving concerts in churches, sports halls, community halls and outdoor environments.

Yet now that there are concert halls suitable for acoustic music pretty much all over the country, the music scene has changed. The trend is now to take classical music out of these ‘bastions of culture’ and bring it for instance into former industrial buildings, which indie, jazz and experimental music performers began to explore much earlier. As sound technology has become cheaper, better and easier to use, this transition has become simpler to implement.

Indeed, in recent years concert halls have been built to serve multiple purposes, including meetings and conferences, and they include smaller halls and rooms to cater to events of many sizes, not forgetting the popular music events that are well attended and vital for funding. The previous technological leap for concert sound was equipping sound systems for the needs of electroacoustic contemporary music on the one hand and epic musical theatre productions on the other; the next such leap will involve the incorporation of virtual reality into the performing arts and the corresponding audio technology, i.e. 3D sound. However, as the coronavirus pandemic has so decisively shown, completely unpredictable social changes can come out of nowhere.

If music communities manage to be quick and agile in responding to changes on the playing field of music, then concert venues should strive for this kind of anti-fragility as well.

This article was jointly commissioned by the FMQ and Rondo magazine.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Sibelius Hall in Lahti. Photo c: Jani Mahkonen