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Helsinki Music Centre - The dream of a hundred years

by Antti Häyrynen

Despite repeated and persistent efforts spanning a century, Helsinki has never had a true orchestral concert hall until this year. The new Music Centre, opening in August 2011, is the first ever venue in Finland's capital city specifically designed and intended for the performing of symphonic music.

Finnish musicians have been giving quality performances at the heart of the nation in three centuries without having a decent place in which to do so. Up until the 1970s, orchestras in Helsinki had to be content with the Great Hall of the University of Helsinki, completed in 1832.

That was the venue where Fredrik Pacius inaugurated the first ever orchestral concerts in the fledgling capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland, still a tiny town in the 1830s. That was also where the orchestra of the Helsinki Philharmonic Society founded by Robert Kajanus – today the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra – gave its concerts. And it was there, in the Great Hall of the University, that Sibelius himself conducted most of the premieres of his symphonies.

Imperial building aspirations

From 1809 to 1917, Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire. The foundation for a grand cultural project in nation-building was laid in the 1870s as the Finnish cultural establishment, inspired by the emerging National Romantic arts movement, made submissions to Finland’s Senate to set up a variety of arts institutions and to erect buildings for them.

The orchestra of the Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Kajanus rose to a prominent position in the nation’s cultural awakening and attracted international attention on tour at the World Fair in Paris in 1900. The earliest initiatives to build a concert hall in Helsinki date from around the same time.

The concert hall project of 1900, like the first initiatives that emerged in the 1870s, envisioned an ‘arts palace’ that would house not only a concert hall but also a music academy, visual arts exhibitions and other functions. In 1905, the ambitious plan was scaled down, and a lottery was held to raise funds. A building was actually designed by architect Lars Sonck, who also designed Sibelius’s home, Ainola; in the end, however, the project foundered because a plot proved too expensive to acquire. In 1907, Kajanus even wrote a letter of appeal to Andrew Carnegie, the American steel mogul who had financed the construction of the concert hall bearing his name in New York in 1891. But no help was forthcoming from that quarter, and this attempt too came to nothing.

There was no shortage of enthusiasm in musical circles in Helsinki for building a concert hall during the Russian era. Many projects went far simply on the strength of the rise of national feeling, but despite undeniable triumphs there was a deep-seated public suspicion towards music as an art form, and it was this attitude which, time and again, undermined efforts to enshrine it in bricks and mortar. Finland lacked a history of civilisation that would have helped understand the collective and historical importance of such a cultural building.

The leading architects of the era – Lars Sonck, Onni Tarjanne, Armas Lindgren and Eliel Saarinen – between them drew up a dozen proposals to erect a setting worthy of the National Romantic spirit of Finnish music, and of Sibelius’s music in particular. The most interesting of Saarinen’s several designs is a Jugendstil ‘concert palace’ from 1914 that is obviously related to his design for Helsinki railway station.

The only building remotely related to music that was actually constructed during the Russian era was the Alexander Theatre (1879). Built at the initiative of Governor General Nikolai Adlerberg, it was required “to provide pleasant and instructive entertainment to the community of civil servants”. Built in the style of a Russian garrison theatre, this venue later became the home of the Finnish National Opera up to the completion of the new Opera House in 1993.

Concert hall in flames

Finland became independent in 1917, but this brought no new spark to the construction of buildings for music. The only venue intended for orchestral music built in Finland before the Second World War was the concert hall of the Helsinki Conservatory (now the Sibelius Academy) (1931), designed by Eino Forsman and seating some 700.

Forsman was an amateur musician himself and had family ties to Sibelius. He researched and supervised the acoustical design of the hall himself, and the acoustic remained satisfactory until the organ pipes were replaced with a sloping ceiling towards the end of the century. Although the acoustic is rather dry and not favoured by contemporary audiences when built, the concert hall of the Sibelius Academy is well suited to music on a smaller scale and also remains an elegant interior.

The new Conservatory building was probably the main reason for the concert hall initiative put forward by Kajanus in 1930 being buried in government red tape. This had already been regarded as a done deal, and it was even hinted that its unexpected demise was due to a conspiracy to suppress it.

Kajanus’s rival, conductor Georg Schnéevoigt, had been involved in shaping the Konserthus, Stockholm’s new concert hall, built in 1924-1926. In 1933, he tried to fire up the national spirit in Suomen Musiikkilehti:

“Whoever has seen the outright excellent circumstances in which the ‘Musikaliska Sällskapet’ [Musical Society] works in the concert hall in Stockholm cannot help but think that it is high time that we achieved similar conditions over here.”

Nevertheless, the Government would not grant permissions for holding a fundraising lottery for the scheme.

On 25 February 1944, as violinist Gerhard Taschner was preparing to perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at the University of Helsinki, a fleet of some 1,000 Soviet bombers appeared over the city, and an air raid alert was sounded. Shrapnel and incendiary bombs destroyed the main building of the University, and Taschner never performed the concerto there.

Rebuilt after the war, the Great Hall of the University was widened by some 10 m, and although this brought more seats into the hall, experts declared that its Neo-Classical acoustics had been ruined. With two orchestras and a concert calendar livelier than ever, Helsinki was still waiting for a solution to its concert hall problem.

Musical reconstruction

In the reconstruction period after the Second World War, the first two purpose-built concert halls in Finland were finally erected, though neither of them in Helsinki. A 1,002-seat concert hall was built in Turku in 1952 with funding provided by Turku’s twin city Gothenburg in Sweden. Another concert hall was built in Lahti in 1951 on funds raised by volunteer work, including selling sweets, nail polish and chewing gum – post-war luxury items.

The concert halls in Turku and Lahti were built in the non-ostentatious post-war Functionalist style associated in Finland with Soviet architecture, even though a similar clarity and modesty of design characterised concert halls built elsewhere in the same period, for instance the Royal Festival Hall completed in London in 1952.

There was no shortage of plans in Helsinki. For his architectural diploma, Eero A. Eerikäinen drew up plans for a ‘concert hall by the water, between a natural park and a cultural garden’ at the northern end of Töölönlahti bay in Helsinki in 1952.

In the early 1950s, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Finnish National Opera each had plans for a building of their own in Helsinki. The Finnish Broadcasting Company progressed furthest with its plans, having just acquired new premises for its radio productions on Kesäkatu near Sibelius Park. None of these plans was ever realised, however.

More a conference hall than a concert hall

The aspirations of the musical community turned in the 1960s to the new concert and conference hall being planned for the southern end of Töölönlahti bay. Preparations for a design competition for the site dated as far back as the 1930s.

Alvar Aalto, the internationally most renowned architect of Finnish Functionalism, had in the 1950s and 1960s outlined a plan for the city centre of Helsinki with an axis consisting of a series of public cultural buildings along Töölönlahti bay. The construction of Finlandia Hall, which formed part of this concept, was hurried along so that it would be completed by the centenary of Sibelius’s birth in 1965, but it was not until 1971 that the building was finished, and even then it turned out to be more of a conference venue than a concert hall.

The massively high, fan-shaped 1,700-seat main auditorium proved acoustically subdued and disappointing. Many hesitated to speak the truth at the inaugural concert, but Vilho Viikari in Suomen Sosialidemokraatti bluntly declared: “At the back, the acoustic was dry and stuffy. The echo certainly did not round out or enrich the sound of the orchestra.”

For Nicholas Higham of the BBC, Finlandia Hall is a reminder of “everything that can go wrong in a major national project”. It took nearly 20 years for the powers that be in Helsinki to admit that the city still did not have a decent venue for orchestral music.

The House of Culture

The House of Culture, designed by Alvar Aalto for the Workers’ Cultural Association, was completed on Sturenkatu in Helsinki, next to Linnanmäki amusement park, in 1958.

Paid for by volunteer work organised by the left-wing party SKDL and financial support from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, the building proved to be an ideological and an acoustical problem, as the main hall was not designed specifically for orchestral music. The hall seats 1,500 and has a wide fan-shaped layout. Because the reverb is short, the acoustics are aggressive for orchestral music, and there are few reflection sounds. Nevertheless, with a careful choice of repertoire the hall could be made to yield a physical sound lacking at any other concert venue in Helsinki.

The House of Culture was offered as a venue to the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, which, however, dared not relocate to a new left-wing building in a traditionally working-class district of the city. The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and its conductor Paavo Berglund had no such scruples, and the FRSO performed at the House of Culture regularly up to the 2000s.

In the House of Culture, Aalto managed to create a free and naturally shaped architectural design on a constrained site. It has served a wide variety of musicians over the years, being the venue for the Finnish début of artists as diverse as David Oistrakh (who was very complimentary about the acoustics), Ella Fitzgerald, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa.

A living room for orchestral musicians

The project to build the new Music Centre in Helsinki was launched by Erkki Rautio, then Rector of the Sibelius Academy, in 1992. In 1994, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, historical rivals, both joined the project.

Four years later, the Helsinki City Board chose a site for the new building from among three alternatives. Located in front of Parliament House, the site was valuable and loaded with symbolism but presented a technical challenge for construction. It was also a site that still contained disused railway warehouses where a lively range of counter-culture activities had taken root in the meantime. Opposition to replacing them with the Music Centre attained riot proportions in 2002, deepening the rift that over the decades had come to separate concert music from the general public but also from the radical factions of the intelligentsia. Bridging that rift will be one of the greatest challenges faced by the Music Centre in the future.

This time, nothing was left to chance as far as the sound of the concert hall was concerned. Helena Hiilivirta, appointed to head the planning committee, explains that it was conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen who recommended Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics, who had designed the acoustics at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles. The tender submitted by the company was also the most affordable in its round of competitive tendering, and Toyota was named as the acoustical designer in the brief for the design competition for the building itself in 1998.

Of the three prize-winning entries in the competition, the winner, ‘a mezza voce’, was the most subtle, and not only in its title. The architectural design by Marko Kivistö, Ola Laiho and Mikko Pulkkinen of LPR Architects in Turku did not include a specific shape for the concert hall, but in collaboration with the acoustical designer it evolved into a ‘vineyard’ shape, named ‘Tukkijoki’ (Log river) due to its Finnish appearance and its materials.

The design was written up in Arkkitehti magazine (1/2001), where ‘a mezza voce’ was considered to be hampered by its “disciplined universality”; however, avoiding the ‘wow architecture’ of the other entries was a conscious choice. In placing function above form, ‘a mezza voce’ pays homage to the roots of Functionalism while embodying the humility of art in the face of the general public and of the surrounding buildings.

Art for the people

It is February 2011, and I am standing in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall which is bustling with activity. Only some of the people here are filing in to hear the Philharmonia Orchestra. Mothers with children are going to the youth event on the lower terrace, and pensioners are thronging in the café by the river. Concert programmes and ice cream can be bought at the same stall. This is the sort of openness, accessibility, diversity and interaction that the designers of the Helsinki Music Centre no doubt had in mind.

Nicolas Ourousoff, an architectural journalist writing for the New York Times, has found that concert halls are increasingly being designed as tourist attractions and social spaces. He considers that all great architecture is ultimately an exercise in empathy. A direct contributing factor to this trend is the declining interest in classical music.

Ever since the Berlin Filharmonia was completed (1963), the asymmetrical and segmented ‘vineyard’ model has replaced the ‘shoebox’ model in concert hall design; the latter, though acknowledged for its acoustical superiority, also has the air of a stagnated bourgeois altar to art. Reverberant church-like acoustics were anathema to Functionalist architecture, but the amphitheatre and parabola design solutions favoured by Functionalist architects often resulted in poor acoustical qualities.

The very concept of ‘good acoustics’ itself has changed in the course of history. The vineyard model, with its segmented auditorium, emphasises the individuality and uniqueness of the listening experience. More reverb is now required than in Functionalist aesthetics, but not at the expense of clarity as was the case in some earlier architectural styles. With added emphasis on visibility, the vineyard model focuses not on the ritual-like aspects of a musical performance but on the role of the performers, soloists and conductor. Small wonder, then, that Herbert von Karajan was so enthusiastic about it.

The Concert Hall of the Helsinki Music Centre seats its listeners on two levels, with everyone at a feasible distance from the music and with no large reflecting surfaces.

The Music Centre will have to cater to two professional orchestras with different sound profiles and cultures, and new artistic challenges will be introduced even as the orchestras’ working conditions improve. The importance of the Concert Hall is emphasised by the fact that the four other halls at the Music Centre are relatively small: the Black Box, suitable for amplified music, seats 220 + 5; the Sonore hall for vocal music seats 206 + 78; the Camerata hall for chamber music seats 240; and the small organ recital hall Organo seats 140.

The much called-for feature of the Music Centre being open to its environment is limited by its location. The architecture of the building dovetails with that of Parliament House, Finlandia Hall and Sanoma House, so much so that it almost seems to be bowing down to its surroundings by burrowing itself partly underground. Listeners arriving for a concert must descend to the foyers in the bowels of the building to access the heart of art, the concert hall. The Music Centre has virtually no connection, aesthetic or otherwise, with the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma on its south side, another monument to artistic freedom.

It will scarcely be difficult to fill the concert hall with traditional audiences, but in view of the declining interest in classical music, efforts should be made to broaden its appeal. It is not enough that you can now attend a concert in a sweatshirt and jeans. Music will only be truly universally accessible when all social and cultural thresholds are removed from the concert hall door.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Featured photo by Petri Anttila.