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Hark! now we hear it: One of the world’s largest concert hall organs inaugurated in Helsinki

by Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen

One of the world’s largest concert hall organs was inaugurated in the main concert hall of the Music Centre in Helsinki at the New Year. Organist Jan Lehtola has been curating the process from the first beginnings of the project to the final test performances. He has seen to it that the wishes of the headline donor, composer Kaija Saariaho, were implemented in the best possible way. So what was the process like, from planning to finally playing this grand instrument?

It seemed like an impossible task. How could one possibly build an instrument costing millions at the Music Centre in Helsinki in the context of public funding for culture being repeatedly slashed? How does one design an organ so that it can function in a concert hall setting? Now, as the Music Centre organ stands finished, organist and composer Jan Lehtola has reason to smile. The niche that stood empty for long at the front of the hall now houses an organ that is better than anyone dared expect.

Lehtola, who was interviewed in October, has been curating the process from the very first. He could well be described as the godfather of the instrument. At the time when the Music Centre was being designed and built, several organists lobbied for a space to be reserved for an organ. However, for the longest time it seemed that it would not be possible to source funding for actually building the instrument. Everything changed in 2017 when composer Kaija Saariaho donated one million euros to the Music Centre Foundation for the specific purpose of building the organ. After that, things started happening fast. Seven foundations and funds, spearheaded by the Finnish Cultural Foundation, stepped up to support the project, along with the City of Helsinki and the principal occupants of the Music Centre – the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki.

A committee of organ experts appointed by the Music Centre Foundation began to design the instrument. A new non-profit association (‘Musiikkitalon Urut Soimaan’, which roughly translates as ‘giving sound to the Music Centre organ’) was set up in autumn 2019 to run a public fundraising campaign for programming for the forthcoming instrument. Jan Lehtola was deputy chair of the expert committee and chair of the association since its establishment. He acted as liaison between the various parties involved and kept Kaija Saariaho in the loop at all times; after all, she was not just financially but also emotionally invested in the project.

It was Jan Lehtola who gave the Finnish premiere of Saariaho’s organ concerto Maan varjot [Shadows of the Earth] at the Music Centre in 2015 – on an electronic organ, because there was no concert hall organ at the time. This was what made many people finally realise that the hall really did need an organ.

“That spring, Kaija said to me that she wanted to help get an organ for the Music Centre,” says Lehtola. “I didn’t understand exactly what she meant.”

Saariaho passed away before the organ was completed, but the official inaugural concert given on the instrument on New Year’s Day 2024 by Professor Olivier Latry, organist at Nôtre-Dame in Paris, sealed her substantial legacy to Finnish music.

“My guiding light in all this is the responsibility I bear for Kaija’s legacy,” says Lehtola. “She gave so much to this project, and the rest of us had the duty to surmount any challenges that came up. I’m happy that so many people understood just how important this instrument is.”

On the 10th of January, Maan varjot will finally be heard at the Music Centre sounding as it should, as Jan Lehtola performs Saariaho’s organ concerto with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.


Jan Lehtola discussing with Kaija Saariaho. Photo by Tero Vihavainen.

How to make the organ get up close and personal

Over a period of five years, the expert committee and later the non-profit association spent hundreds of hours in talks with various parties, pursuing the best possible outcome.

“I’ve played numerous concert hall organs around the world, and unfortunately many of them are unsatisfactory,” says Lehtola. The organ as an instrument evolved in church acoustics, and the acoustic is just as important a part of the sound of an organ as the registers it contains. The dry, crisp acoustic of a modern concert hall is vastly different from the rich reverb of a vaulted stone cathedral that may last several seconds.

“On a concert hall organ, the organist must create an illusion of an acoustic.”

To put it another way, a concert hall organ must be designed with this special requirement in mind, and in many cases this has been less than successful. The end result is that the sound of the organ remains a disjointed hum behind the pipe ranks and does not carry over the orchestra to the listener.

“We might have just created the prototype of a good concert hall organ,” says Lehtola with satisfaction.

Apart from Lehtola, the expert committee included Finnish organists Olli PorthanVille Urponen, Kari Jussila, Pekka Suikkanen and Pétur Sakari and, at Saariaho’s specific request, Professor Olivier Latry. Project manager Kaisa Näreranta was also on the committee. 

The committee toured the world listening to the most recently built concert hall organs, engaging in studies and discussions to anticipate any eventual pitfalls. They knew that it would not be feasible to build a historical period instrument or a compromise hybrid of several such instruments in a concert hall setting. What was needed was a modern hybrid that would address the specific challenges of a concert hall: “An organ which complements the sound of an orchestra and which can be used to perform a wide variety of repertoire, and which also caters to the needs of contemporary composers – but above all it must sound good in the hall,” Lehtola explains.

Much effort was invested in enabling the organ to fill the hall with its sound. In 2018, with the support of the Chief Conductors of the resident orchestras, a successful negotiation was conducted to clear more space for the organ behind the stage in the main hall of the Music Centre: some seats were removed and a lighting bar was relocated so that the organ could be brought forward and down. This allowed the number of stops to be increased to a whopping 124.

In a sense, the organ now has two principal divisions, which form the core of its sonority. Lehtola notes that this, crucially, allowed the sound of the organ to really get up close and personal. And sure enough: as one listens to the new organ, it overwhelms the hall in a cascade of sound that appears to turn the entire hall into a gigantic organ. A new era has begun at the Music Centre.


Anticipation ensures function

An anonymous tendering process led to the selection of Rieger Orgelbau of Austria as the organ builder. Lehtola notes that Rieger was the best choice. The Music Centre organ is one of the largest concert hall organs in the world in terms of its number of stops, and it was a huge project for the company.

“They wanted to create a sensational instrument,” says Lehtola. “I’ve never met an organ builder with such a fantastic approach to developing organ-building technology.”

For quite some time, Lehtola was unable to imagine what the Music Centre organ should sound like. The expert committee did not decide on a predetermined disposition, i.e. a roster of stops; instead, they gave Rieger parameters and discussed their proposals without preconceptions. The organ incorporates many features expanding its usability, with specific reference to the needs of contemporary music. The instrument even includes a quarter-tone stop and various special features made possible by new technology.

Time was in short supply during construction because the main hall of the Music Centre is in constant use. Organists were obliged to test the instrument at night. The organ was also tested with orchestras.

“The basic sound of the instrument is extremely beautiful and touching,” says Lehtola. “It creates an ecstasy of sound that concert hall organs rarely achieve. It also allows for a level of accuracy that many contemporary composers feel is not possible with organs in church acoustics.”

It was a priority from the start that the organ would not just be built but also put to frequent use in performances. Efforts were made to minimise the obstacles that commonly hinder the use of concert hall organs. The Musiikkitalon Urut Soimaan association is tasked with coordinating the use of the instrument and is responsible for its maintenance. 

Lehtola is thrilled with the end result: “I could listen to some of the registrations forever – they’re just so beautiful!”


Olivier Latry (organ) and Anssi Karttunen (cello) performing Kaija Saariaho's Offrande (2014) in the inaugrual concert on New Year's Day. Photo by Sakari Röyskö.

A feast for the eyes too

Olivier Latry’s recital on New Year’s Day launched the inaugural week during which the instrument was put through its paces in several concerts, with repertoire ranging from contemporary music to improvisation and film music. The inaugural week was a veritable festival for organ music and also included masterclasses for Sibelius Academy students, held by international organ stars. As the orchestral season starts, several organ concertos are on the menu, including the Finnish premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Sinfonia concertante, performed by Olivier Latry and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra on 12 January.

The composition competition organised by the Musiikkitalon Urut Soimaan association and named after Kaija Saariaho resulted in a crop of 13 new organ works the premieres of which have been spread across forthcoming concerts. Saariaho’s influence is also visible in the façade of the organ. The undulating, interweaving pipes – some of them actually producing sound – represent a visual embodiment of the sound of the instrument.

“The organ builders submitted various designs for the façade, but none of them were good for us. Then we saw a concept sketched by visual artist Harald Schwarz that had been considered too modern for a particular church organ project. We literally whooped with joy when we saw it,” says Lehtola, recalling a particular meeting some year ago.

The committee developed the design further, with Saariaho offering sketches as well. Lehtola is extremely pleased with how the façade turned out.

“It’s a feast for the eyes, with multiple levels. Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, for instance, is principally known for its organ façade. We hope that this will happen at the Music Centre too.”

In the organ project, Lehtola was the one who brought people together and who kept a rein on what was going on. He is quick to stress that the success of the project was due to a common goal and an excellent team spirit.

“This instrument is a collaborative effort, and I’m incredibly pleased to have had the opportunity to curate the project. This organ is hands down one of the most important things that I’ve achieved in my career. And the main thing is that it sounds good and that it will be played.”

A longer version of this article was originally published in Finnish in Rondo Classic magazine. 

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Featured photo: Sakari Röyskö