in Articles

Finnish nature and dazzling sun

by Jaani Länsiö

Matthew Whittall has risen to the elite of Finnish composers. He is inspired by nature and his personal experiences and is not ashamed to admit it. Last winter, his orchestral work Solen was given an interpretation in dance in Ulm, Germany. Next spring, it will be performed in Toronto.

Born in Canada in 1975 and resident in Finland since 2001, Matthew Whittall knew when he embarked on his music studies that he would eventually be going to Europe. He first moved from Canada to Massachusetts and then New York to study composition, but the American scene soon became too narrow for him. There was a certain kind of mainstream idiom, there were restrictions and there were ancient and accepted ways of addressing those restrictions. What Whittall was looking for was freedom.

It was known among those in the know that the scene in Finland was conducive to contemporary music, but the actual impulse for Whittall’s trek to Finland came from works by Kalevi Aho, Kaija Saariaho and Sibelius that he heard at lectures. They spoke to him of the sounds of nature, of space. But what kind of nature and what kind of space? He wanted to find out. And it was then that his doom was sealed: he would go to Finland.


Success through sonority

In 2012, Whittall had two successful orchestral premieres: the Viola Concerto performed by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Dulcissima, clara, sonans performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra finally established him as a full-fledged member of the Finnish composer elite. In 2013 Dulcissima, clara, sonans received the most distinguished annual recognition in Finnish music, the Teosto Prize, which includes a EUR 40,000 award. Whittall shared the prize with pop singer Anna Eriksson. The jury appreciated the fascinatingly sonorous contemporary flavour of Whittall’s work, accessible without being banal. Whittall has yet to see the impact of the Teosto Prize on his work:

“These things take time. So far the prize hasn’t brought me any commissions. Not that I know, anyway.”

The orchestral work Solen, performed with choreography in Ulm, Germany last winter, dates from 2006. Its genesis is linked to Whittall’s arrival in Finland. Leaving Canada in the evening and flying towards the east to Helsinki, it seemed like time had stopped: instead of setting, the sun stayed still, the light never faded, the sky was full of radiance.

“For a while, I saw two suns, in front and behind,” says Whittall, recalling the magic moment above the clouds.

Whittall is entirely comfortable with discussing inspirations, influences and backgrounds. While composing is an intellectual, mechanical and organised undertaking, Whittall freely acknowledges the spiritual side of the work, even though purebred old-school modernists scoff at that sort of thing. He does not think of this as a generational issue, though.

“If it helps the listener understand my music, I see no reason not to talk about the backgrounds to my works.”

One of the two influences underlying Solen (The Sun) is the eponymous painting by Edward Munch at the Munch Museum in Oslo. It is a picture where the brilliance of the sun’s rays obliterates everything around them, scattering into spectral colours. These Whittall sought to translate into music.

“The title is pretty much a dead giveaway as to what the piece is about,” he says, even though the work is not narrative or programmatic as such. “The choreography in Ulm also avoided narrative; it was based on abstract geometrical figures,” says Whittall, obviously satisfied with the result.


Between giants

Credit for bringing Solen to Ulm in the first place goes to the conductor, Nils Schweckendieck, who is also resident in Finland. He suggested including Whittall’s work in a programme where it was in very good company.

“OK, so I’m a mainstream composer now,” says Whittall with amusement. At the Ulm Ballet, his work joined those of two composers who are about as mainstream as you can get: it formed one of the four seasons (autumn) together with Summer and Winter by Antonio Vivaldi and Le sacre du printemps by Igor Stravinsky.

But wait, there’s more. Whittall will be returning to his native land for an exceptional showcasing of contemporary music in a subscription concert programme in March next year, Solen being performed before Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. Angela Hewitt, a Canadian pianist who seldom appears at home, will certainly be a draw at this concert, which will be conducted by Hannu Lintu.

Solen works well as an overture, even though I didn’t write it as one. Not that it has hit potential, but it does travel well,” says Whittall, referring by comparison to his Viola Concerto, which is beyond the capacity of many orchestras because of the rare instruments it requires.

Whittall is facing a busy year, yet he has found time for an autumn trek at Koli hill, in what is known as Finland’s national landscape. It would be no surprise if the breathtaking lakeland scenery were to end up in his next composition. After all, Sibelius found inspiration on Koli too.

This article was first published in FMQ 4/2013.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Main photo: Matthew Whittall by Saara Vuorjoki.

2017 premieres:

The world premiere of Matthew Whittall’s The City in the Sea, trio for alto flute, viola and harp, will take place in Tampere on 28 September 2017. His Piano Concerto Nameless Sea will be premiered by the National Arts Centre Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu, with Angela Hewitt as soloist, on 5 October in Ottawa. The Finnish premiere of the concerto will take place on 10 November in Helsinki.