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Contemporary music does not scare off Finnish choirs

by Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen

Finland’s choral scene is vibrant, and its professional side has further solidified in recent years. It is important for amateur and professional choirs alike to move with the times by creating new choral repertoire and providing opportunities for composers to make discoveries with the choral instrument. Recent developments have brought the choral scene to a turning point.


Finland is the land of a thousand lakes – and choirs, with its exceptional number and scope of amateur choral groups. By contrast, Finland’s professional choir scene has long remained small-scaled. However, the recent inclusion of the Helsinki Chamber Choir in the state funding scheme and the perseverance of the Key Ensemble and Tampere Cappella in their climb towards a professional status have shown that, alongside high-quality amateur choirs, ensembles of professional choral singers are also needed and can be sustained. 

The rapid overall development towards an increasingly high level of musicianship has not gone unnoticed among choir directors. Jani Sivén, who works as a lecturer in choir conducting at the Sibelius Academy and directs the Helsinki-based Audite Chamber Choir, is well placed to make these kinds of observations. 

“Our colleagues from Central Europe marvel at the sheer number of top-level amateur choirs in Finland. We have witnessed a tremendous development in the last couple of decades”, says Sivén.

Another phenomenon that often surprises foreign choir conductors is Finnish choirs’ appetite for the most contemporary music. Sivén attributes this development to the growing numbers of professional choir conductors and the choirs’ increasingly ambitious programming choices. 

“Finnish choirs commission and perform new work frequently, with a continuously growing interest in contemporary music”, he says. “Their artistic directors have a strong wish to further develop our choir culture, and they often program highly ambitious repertoire even when working with unpaid singers.” 

And choral amateurs have a thirst for projects that feel meaningful. This can be seen, among other things, in the commissioning of works that take a social stand. The Swedish-language female choir Lyran’s staged concert Epilog in 2019, for example, was a remarkable event: the concert included premieres of Cecilia Damström’s Requiem for our Earth and Perttu Haapanen’s Kodecs/Codecs, both drawing on discussions around the climate crisis. In 2023, Jani Sivén’s Audite Chamber Choir celebrated its 30th anniversary through a concert titled Voices of Earth, featuring a set of six newly commissioned pieces which addressed climate change and humans’ relationship with nature.

Another recurring trend has been the choirs’ determination to introduce more female voices to the scene through choral commissions. For example, the traditional YL Male Voice Choir celebrated its 140th anniversary with a concert program consisting exclusively of music composed by women. 

Audite Chamber Choir performing at the Voices of Earth concert, featuring newly commissioned pieces addressing climate change and humanity's relationship with nature. Photo: Esko Keski-Oja

Collaborations across borders

The Helsinki Chamber Choir has long been a trailblazer for professional chamber choirs in Finland. Although it is no longer the only one of its kind, it still occupies a special role as a performer of new music. Soon after its inception in 2005, the choir’s role organically evolved towards presenting works  that are considered too challenging for amateur singers. Over the years, the choir has widened its repertoire profile but new music and commissions still remain at the heart of the choir’s activities, as the choir's artistic director Nils Schweckendiek confirms.

“It is valuable for singers to perform a wide variety of repertoire, but as we remain one of the very few choirs in Finland consisting of professional singers, we have an obligation to be active in the area of new music”, says Schweckendiek.

In 2025, the Helsinki Chamber Choir will celebrate its 20th anniversary. The milestone will be marked through several premieres, including large-scale works and collaborations with instrumental ensembles. “We wish to have an international presence, with collaborations reaching outside of Finland as well. For the anniversary, we have commissioned works from composers based both in Finland and internationally”, the artistic director reveals.

The choir also engages in international collaborations with other professional choirs. The Nordic Choir Expedition event in June 2023 brought together four professional choirs for a tour of joint concerts, where a new work Between the Earth and Skies by the Ukrainian composer Galina Grigorjeva, co-commissioned by the four choirs, was heard for the first time.

Another recent highlight was Alex Freeman’s composition Under the Arching Heavens – A Requiem, commissioned by the Helsinki Chamber Choir and premiered in spring 2018 on the centenary of the end of the Finnish Civil War, and subsequently nominated for the Teosto Prize. 

“We had previously commissioned a fifteen-minute piece from Freeman, titled A Wilderness of Sea, which had me convinced of his ability to write a significantly larger choral work, over an hour in duration”, Schweckendiek explains. “It is often the norm in both the choral and orchestral world to commission pieces ranging from 10-15 minutes, and it is important that we also feature new large-scale works alongside them.”

Schweckendiek also had a hand in commissioning and programming Freeman’s extensive choral symphony Ghost Light as part of the Musiikkitalo Choir’s tenth anniversary concert in 2022. Performed together with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the new work touched on themes surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“He once again tackled a tricky subject in a very sensitive and thoughtful manner”, Schweckendiek commends.

The Helsinki Chamber Choir’s recording of Kaija Saariaho’s choral compositions received a Grammy Award in 2024. This photo, taken with Saariaho, is from a concert at the Temppeliaukio Church in August 2022. Photo: Martti Anttila

The struggle continues

Commissioning new works requires significantly larger amounts of resources compared to simply performing existing compositions. How does one manage to secure sufficient funding?   

Jani Sivén expresses his gratitude for Finland’s art subsidy system which is unique from an international perspective. There are also several different private, non-profit foundations providing funding opportunities for individuals and organisations in the cultural sector. 

“This enables the funding of projects that would not necessarily be easy to pitch to sponsors”, Sivén remarks. “But the difficulty is that you can usually only apply as far ahead as your next season, whereas you would ideally want to be able to put some longer-term plans in place as well.”

Mezzo-soprano and orchestral and choral conductor Jutta Seppinen has been working in the independent sector for a long time and she is no stranger to the world of grant applications. She was appointed as Artistic Director of the Turku-based Key Ensemble in autumn 2022 and has big plans for the group.

“The Key Ensemble has long had its sights set on professionalising its operations.  A few years ago, we started paying an hourly fee for our singers”, says Seppinen. Regardless, the operational model remains freelancer-based, with short-term funding adding to the general operational vulnerability. The Helsinki Chamber Choir’s inclusion into the state funding system after a long battle opened the possibility for other choirs to rise to the same position. Seppinen’s goal is to crack into the system.

“We are at a turning point. Up until now, we have been funded by the City of Turku and the Art Promotion Centre Finland as well as various individual foundations, but we need a bigger pot of money to be able to continue in our chosen direction.”

As an experienced performer of contemporary music, Seppinen feels it is important to introduce groundbreaking new choral music to the repertoire of the Key Ensemble, which has so far largely commissioned music that could be described as traditional in terms of its tonality. “Our next big process is defining our identity and identifying what we can offer to the contemporary Finnish choral music scene.”

Seppinen’s priority is to commission music from composers who have the courage to say something new and explore the extremities. In April, at the Tampere Biennale, one of Finland’s most significant contemporary music events, the Key Ensemble will perform a concert titled Breathing for Peace. The program will feature the first commissioned work during Seppinen’s tenure, written for the ensemble by the Turkish-Finnish composer Aslıhan Sarikoski.

“I think there is still a lot to discover about the choral instrument”, says Seppinen. As a singer, she understands the possibilities of the human voice. “It’s also the conductor’s responsibility to enable the singers to keep discovering new aspects of their instrument.”

Seppinen has extensive contact networks with Finnish composers and she knows the extent of vision and skill across the sector. However, she has noticed that funding opportunities have become scarce in recent years.

“After the pandemic, funding applications concerning music have as much as doubled. There is an increase in creative activity in the field, yet funding tends to drift for a select few. Without funding, there will be no premieres. Composers need to be compensated for their work. I am concerned about the current government’s policies and the slow erosion of the funding for the independent music sector.”

Of course, there are different alternatives to the current funding models. Joint co-commissions between ensembles and festivals are one solution. Composers may apply for funding for a new work and organise the performances independently. In May, the Key Ensemble will present a concert in Musiikkitalo’s Paavo hall, featuring several premieres which will be produced and funded by a Finnish-led, international collective of young composers.

“You don’t always have to commission a single piece with a defined beginning and end. It is also possible to create other types of work, such as sound art concepts”, says Seppinen. She has enjoyed creative collaborations with other artists such as sound designer Tuomas Norvio and feels that a collective work setting could be an interesting experience for a composer and a skilled professional choir.

“But we must also nurture the traditional compositional form to avoid rendering scores entirely irrelevant in contemporary music”, she points out.


The Turku-based Key Ensemble in 2022. The artistic director Jutta Seppinen sees that the choral scene in Finland has arrived at a turning point. Photo: Tuomas Tenkanen

Opportunities for young talents

The inclusion of the Helsinki Chamber Choir into the state funding system in 2022 was a big step – not only for the choir, but for the entire choir field.

“For a long time, there was this narrative that a choir cannot be eligible for continuous state funding, but in the end we succeeded”, the Helsinki Chamber Choir’s executive director and long-time singer Martti Anttila notes with satisfaction. The difficult process was rooted in many Finns’ stubborn perception of choral singing as a strictly amateur activity. The state funding is significant, but according to Anttila, still only covers roughly a third of the Helsinki Chamber Choir’s running costs and needs to be complemented by a constant flurry of grant applications for specific projects and commissions. 

“We are in high demand, but many potential presenters cannot afford to cover the entire project cost as it is expensive to hire a group of professional singers”, says Anttila.

Typically, the choir is engaged by festivals and orchestras, sometimes presenting joint commissions from composers. One of these, The Return of Light, was commissioned from Matthew Whittall together with the Tapiola Sinfonietta as one the Helsinki Chamber Choir’s 10th anniversary works in 2015. It is important to ensure that the first performance will not remain the last. It is also the norm to eventually make a recording of the premiered works.

The Helsinki Chamber Choir recorded Kaija Saariaho’s complete works for mixed choir in autumn 2022, and at the time of writing the album has just received a Grammy Award in the category of best choral performance. It also won the Finnish Emma recording award in the category of classical and contemporary music. 

“We had the opportunity to work with Saariaho on the concert and the recording, and it was definitely one of our recent highlights”, says artistic director Nils Schweckendiek. “Most of the works had been premiered internationally, but we had the honour of performing Saariaho’s last choral work Reconnaissance for the first time in Finland. These compositions are a true credit to Saariaho’s versatility to write for the choral instrument.”

Schweckendiek notes that the Helsinki Chamber Choir’s commission program over the past few years has reflected their wish to also encourage young composers to write choral music. The choir has recently commissioned works from young Finnish composers such as Joel Järventausta and Lara Poe, both of whom have already made their mark in orchestral writing.

“Our aim is to encourage up-and-coming composers to experiment with the expressive possibilities of the choir and to provide them with opportunities to develop their skills”, says Schweckendiek.

It was only natural for the Audite Chamber Choir to celebrate its 30th anniversary through new music premieres as the choir boasts several composers in its ranks. The end result was a sumptuous celebratory concert including no less than six premieres, all penned by the choir’s in-house composers. In addition to Alex Freeman, Anna HuuskonenMarkku KlamiFinn Shields and Matthew Whittall, the choir’s artistic director Jani Sivén, also a noted composer, contributed a piece of his own. The concert’s overall themes revolved around nature and climate change, topics which took form in the composers’ mutual discussions. The works will be released as a recording in 2024 on the Swedish label Take Five Records.

“This became a very special program, because all composers had insider knowledge of the choir as well were involved in the entire process as singers”, Sivén happily remarks. “The new works turned out to be a perfect fit for us, and they also communicate with each other. In fact, the complete program comes together as a choral symphony of a kind.”

Slightly edited on 19 February 2024: The Emma recording award was granted just one day after the release of this article. The status of the Helsinki Chamber Choir’s recording was updated from “nominated” to “won”.

Featured photo: Nils Schweckendiek conducting the Helsinki Chamber Choir at the Tenso Days 2017 Mechelen. Photo by Leo Samama.
Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham