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Orchestras for all

by Antti Häyrynen

Someone once described Finland as an orchestral utopia. And we are indeed said to have more orchestras per capita than any other country in the world.
The Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras (Suosio), celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has 30 member orchestras. This may sound a lot in a country with a population of only five and a half million, but together these orchestras have under a thousand professional players, which is fewer than in, say, Berlin alone. In other words, the majority of the orchestras are relatively small and they are scattered far and wide.

Curious beginning

In some ways, Finnish orchestras have an unusual history. People here have been playing in orchestras ever since the 18th century, but as recently as the early 1960s we still had only four professional orchestras. Finnish orchestral history ties in closely with the birth of the nation state and of public cultural life. We did not have any feudal court orchestras, apart from a short period at Turku Castle in 1562; instead, communal music-making centred from the 17th century onwards on the seats of learning in Turku and Viipuri.

The first ensemble to be formed (in 1747) and still going strong today was the Turku Academy Orchestra, a band of players within the academic community with traditions now upheld by the Helsinki University Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra of the Aurora Society, likewise in Turku, in the 1770s and the Turku Music Society in 1790 continued to foster the cultural ideals of the Enlightenment. Kindred and often short-lived orchestras then popped up in other parts of the country from the beginning of the 19th century onwards.

The first great increase in orchestral playing in Finland coincided with the period up to Finnish Independence in 1917, for in those years orchestras sprang up like mushrooms. Examples of the embodiment of the cultural idealism were Joensuu, a remote little town of just over 4,000 inhabitants on the eastern border that gathered together a string orchestra, and Kouvola, a railway junction in SE Finland that formed an Engine Drivers’ Orchestra in the same year.

As in other parts of Europe, the orchestras might well have operated under the aegis of a music society, but they might also have been the protégé of a temperance society, a voluntary fire brigade or, say, a youth association. People from all ranks of society should, it was felt, have some acquaintance with music of many kinds.

Why orchestras?

It is important to note that these orchestras were born of a spontaneous desire to make music with others. Only a couple of orchestras here have ever been instituted ‘from above’, by decision of the state or a local authority. Orchestras in Finland are very much a community affair: playing, listening, experiencing and growing in the company of others.

Most of the early orchestras were amateur ones; it was this that generated the community or local spirit. Concerts in the early days were collective efforts. The standard undoubtedly varied, but all who attended them contributed to their success. Despite the claim sometimes made that orchestras are ‘imported goods’ and fundamentally alien to the Finnish mind-set, they are in most cases a significant element of their local history and identity.

The importance of Jean Sibelius in fanning the early orchestral flames cannot be underestimated. All over Finland, people were eager to form orchestras to perform his music, which they regarded as being of national importance. The goal has often been an orchestra big enough to perform the Sibelius symphonies. Sibelius is still by far the most popular composer with Finnish orchestras, which give some 300–400 performances of works by him each year.

The orchestral boom of the early 20th century was no mere passing vogue prompted by Sibelius or National-Romantic aspirations. The young nation, with its faith in education, turned to music in the hope of earning international recognition and to culture as a firm foundation for its very existence. Through music, we could become part of the European cultural heritage beyond and across linguistic borders, but we could also use music as a means of determining a distinct identity of our own. (See also the article by Vesa Kurkela in FMQ 2/2014.)

Some may speak of an ‘Arctic symphony phobia’ among the Nordic peoples, yet orchestral music nevertheless seems to appeal to the majority of us Finns. It has endured where singing in a choir, for example, has dwindled in the past few decades. Symphony concerts are what pull in the punters right now.

Orchestras band together

Political independence for Finland in 1917 did not greatly increase the number of orchestras. Some cities, such as Turku, Tampere and Oulu, set up municipal orchestras, but interest in orchestras fell off in many smaller towns. The achievements of the period before Independence were considered sufficient and the young state was chary about new cultural investments.

Finnish cultural life entered a new era after the Second World War, when great attention began to be paid to the legislation on education and culture. The foundations were laid for the modern, civilised welfare state; this included a network of regional universities and the spreading of cultural services to all corners of the country.

The Act on state aid for music colleges of 1969 set in motion an unprecedented growth in music education and its results. Orchestras were likewise keen to anchor themselves on a durable and professional base. This led to the founding of the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras (Suosio) in spring 1965. Attracting 18 members in its first year, it raised the number to 29 within a decade. The last to join were the old, financially sound professional Helsinki orchestras.

The new Association was an umbrella organisation for Finnish orchestras, its primary objectives being to establish the criteria for receiving state aid, to standardise costs, to set up a music library, to train staff and to promote Finnish orchestral repertoire. The Association’s orchestra statistics have been an invaluable source of information for long-range studies.

From then onwards, Finnish orchestras rapidly became more professional. First in line were those consisting of a nucleus of professional players supplemented by amateurs and music students. The professionals were often expected to both play and teach. Many orchestras operating under the aegis of a society were taken over by their local authority in the 1970s.

The now professional orchestras were able to give far more concerts of a much higher standard to a much wider audience. Some 20 years were to pass before the vocational training of musicians could satisfy the growing demand for players. Not until the 1990s did the supply meet the demand, though concern has been expressed at a perceived drop in the standard of trained musicians.

From south to north

The most striking feature of our Finnish orchestras is not so much their number as their diversity. Thanks to their different genesis, they each have their own tradition and profile. This means that the line-ups and programming policy vary from one part of the country to another. Most of the Finnish orchestras also regularly tour abroad, so they are nowadays quite international.

The Helsinki region carries the greatest orchestral prestige. It is the home of not only the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Finnish Radio Symphony, but also of orchestras with a specialist profile of their own: opera (the Finnish National Opera), period music (the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra, the Finnish Baroque Orchestra), jazz (UMO), contemporary music and adventurous programme planning (Avanti!). Right next door are the youthful, virtuosic Tapiola Sinfonietta in Espoo and Finland’s only symphony-sized light orchestra, Vantaa Pops.

A glance at the map of Finland shows that the orchestras are spread throughout the country, though increasingly far apart the further north they are. Hence the Chamber Orchestra of Lapland on the Arctic Circle serves the whole vast area of Lapland, from the city of Rovaniemi right up to Utsjoki. The orchestras in the east differ in character and repertoire from those in the west, but they all centre on towns with a university and colleges.

Different members of the same family

From time to time the small orchestras band together to perform large-scale works. Such was the case when the 21 players of the Lappeenranta City Orchestra joined forces with the 12 of the St Michel Strings to form the Saimaa Sinfonietta. The Lentua Sinfonietta based on Kuhmo in turn collaborates regularly with the Petrozavodsk Conservatory across in Russia.

The key to the success of the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra in Kokkola has been its dynamic performances of classical music, while the Seinäjoki City Orchestra a little further south has specialised in tango. The Turku and Tampere orchestras have grown and matured to philharmonic proportions in recent years, with a fistful of fine discs to prove it. The Oulu Symphony in the north is able to perform a wide variety of music, some of it large-scale, with 61 players.

The Lahti Symphony Orchestra has made a considerable name for itself with its Sibelius discs and its home, the Sibelius Hall, but the secret of its success also lies in its dynamic philosophy. The strong input of its host city has been matched by an unusual degree of professional commitment. The Kymi Sinfonietta, born when the City Orchestras of Kotka and Kouvola merged in 1999, is the only joint-stock-company Finnish orchestra, and this is reflected in its innovative programming.

Each of the Finnish orchestras has a distinct character and role, and a local and artistic ‘patch’ that sets it apart from the others. Together they are more of a big extended family than a nuclear one.

In the name of the law

In the 1970s, the Finnish orchestras became ‘institutionalised’, as it were, as part of a homogeneous music system the cultural vision of which may, with hindsight, be criticised as narrow. The plan was for a network of regional orchestras that, by splitting up into smaller units, could reach even the remote parts of the country. This ‘bottom-up’ system was, however, too ‘top-down’ in the way it was directed and designed.

The resources of the local authorities and associations maintaining the orchestras were not sufficient in the 1980s to meet the Suosio goals. The Finnish bank crisis of the 1990s and the ensuing recession threatened the progress that had already been made when many towns began talking about disbanding their orchestras in the interests of economy.

The strong community spirit that surrounded the orchestras was nevertheless proved in the 1990s with the founding of patrons’ associations to support them. The government also realised that the laboriously built system was now under threat. In 1993, a long-dreamt-of Orchestra Act came into force by which the government agreed to fund orchestras for a given number of man-years per year.

The Act now safeguarded the existence of the sorely afflicted orchestras, but it did not guarantee the envisaged trend in man-years, i.e. players. Nor has it meant that the orchestras actually get the state aid awarded to them. Due to Finland’s system of municipal self-government, the state pays the funds earmarked for orchestras to the local authority, which is committed to maintaining its orchestra, yet the local authority can spend the money as it wishes.

The new Orchestra Act passed in 2006 sought to raise the state aid for orchestras to correspond to their actual expenditure, but apart from a slight improvement in the national economy beginning in 2008, the situation has steadily deteriorated. It has not been helped by the crisis that has hit all Europe, bringing news of cuts and of orchestras being disbanded in, for example, the Netherlands and the UK. (See also the report below by Hilppa Sorjonen.)

Music for a million

Over four decades, the Finnish orchestras succeeded in raising their total audience figure from about 400,000 to over a million. This figure has dropped to just under a million during the recession of the past few years because the orchestras have – paradoxically for reasons of economy – been obliged to give fewer symphony concerts.

Meanwhile, however, their musical offering has increased and greatly diversified. Outreach, schools, the elderly and workshops are nowadays a regular item on the Finnish orchestra’s agenda. Classical music is no longer regarded as elitist, the threshold to attending a concert has lowered and people want more and more to listen to music for its own sake.

Orchestras have occasionally been criticised as ‘music museums’, but the list of premiere performances given by the Finnish orchestras proves they are anything but. Nor is the bulk of the historical repertoire left to gather dust; instead, classics are given a new polish to fit the needs and perspective of the present day and age. The performance of the earliest repertoire, that of the Baroque, has changed most radically, as borne out by the Finnish Baroque Orchestra and the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra, members of Suosio since 1989 and 1997 respectively.

The reduction in arts education in Finnish comprehensive schools and familiarity with the arts in general has made the performance of classical music steadily more challenging. Orchestras both in Finland and elsewhere are increasingly having to provide the arts education that used to be our schools’ responsibility. The biggest task is tempting a completely new adult audience to our concerts.

Nowadays state aid is also granted for folk music (Tallari) and children’s music (Loiskis). The Riku Niemi Orchestra, specialising in rhythm music for large ensembles, is also a recipient. A growth in orchestral activity has also been witnessed in the number and quality of amateur orchestras, whose repertoires are nowadays much more ambitious than they used to be. In other words, the work done by our Music Institutes can also be heard in our amateur orchestras.

Why still orchestras?

More and more arguments in favour of orchestras have been put forward in recent years, from their ability to promote physical and mental wellbeing to local image-building and branding. While a broad perspective is good, we should not forget that the orchestras are primarily arts institutions. It is precisely as regular, lasting ‘institutions’ that they are part of our welfare society, providing a service that is now seriously threatened.

The liberalist members of society tend to view such ‘institutions’ as outmoded, unproductive relics of eras past. Yet while nothing can replace the nationwide network of inspiration, innovation and community created by our orchestras, they should at the same time realise their need for constant regeneration as they face the future.

For over a century, we Finns have relied widely on education and culture in building for the future. Without these, the future looks not just dim but downright dark.

The Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras (Suosio) celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. 


Antti Häyrynen is a historian and a writer on music.

Translation: Susan Sinisalo

Photo: Tuukka Järventausta